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Steve Erickson. Simon & Schuster, $20 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-671-74296-6

Erickson, who has attracted a strong following with his three novels (the most recent was Tours of the Black Clock ) and the memoir Leap Year , has now written his most provocative novel yet, an apocalyptic narrative in which he yokes his grim vision of America to the exalted vision of Thomas Jefferson. The story opens in Paris, where Jefferson is serving as the new country's ambassador to France. The protagonist, however, is not the master of Monticello but Sally Hemings, the slave and concubine he has brought with him. A beautiful young woman with ``skin that was too white to be quite black and too black to be quite white,'' Sally accepts her submission to Thomas, even as she makes him promise to free their children; for him, their relationship embodies all that is paradoxical in the new nation, as ``it was the nature of American freedom that he was only free to take pleasure in something he possessed.'' Their bastard child, so to speak, is America, and soon enough the novel leaps forward two centuries, at least, to a dystopian Los Angeles that represents America at its most wayward. There the spirits of Sally and Thomas are made manifest through any number of characters, as well as through a talismanic stone and cryptic references to ``the pursuit of happiness.'' Dark, chaotic, ruled by religious zealots and policed by Chandleresque lone gunmen, Erickson's dystopia is rather too familiarly rendered; and too often his prose simply disorients the reader when he means to explore the nature of disorientation. But he has written an undeniably prodigious work--its disjunct sentences opening up new worlds of expectation, its grave and agonized obsessions standing out in stark contrast to the lucid principles Jefferson set down in the Declaration of Independence. First serial to Esquire; author tour. (Apr.)