Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bring a Map When Traveling in This City

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bring a Map When Traveling in This City

Article excerpt

City of God E.L. Doctorow Random House 320 pp., $25

E.L. Doctorow's new novel, "City of God," is easier to read than St. Augustine's 5th-century theological tract with the same title. Augustine wrote in Latin.

Considering the way "Ragtime" jazzed readers in 1975, movie fans in 1981, and finally theatergoers in 1998, this is painful news to convey. If "City of God" were published posthumously, we could consider it a provocative collection of notes discovered in the author's desk. We could mourn that he hadn't survived to finish it. As it is, I feel grateful to have survived it myself.

There's plenty of good storytelling and profound contemplation here, but all of it labors under the novel's confusing structure - sure to be labeled "brilliant" by professors who dismiss "readability" as a petty demand of the masses.

At the center of this jumble of songs, sermons, interviews, musings, ornithology, movie sketches, physics lectures, and history, is the engaging story of a radical Episcopal priest in New York City.

The Rev. Thomas Pemberton presides over a rundown church and his own dilapidated faith. Pem, as his friends call him, is stretched on the rack of his own doubts, yet still pierced by his love for God. The '60s have left him with a ponytail and a devotion to community action, but no one's paying any attention, except a kindly bishop who finds Pem's liberal theology almost heretical.

When thieves steal the large brass crucifix from St. Timothy's, the police don't give Pem much hope of recovering it. A story decrying the crime appears in the Times, and a few well-meaning donations arrive, but then a rabbi calls with an intriguing message: Someone has left his crucifix on the roof of the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism.

Was this meant as an act of desecration? By anti-Semites who want the synagogue out? By Orthodox Jews who reject reform theology? The rabbi and his wife are understandably alarmed, but Pem dons his "divine detective" cap and begins to see this act in terms of what it might mean for him. …

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