City of God

One evening not long ago, walking home from work, I stopped at a secondhand bookshop in Greenwich Village. My old copy of The Long Loneliness had split down the spine, and I wanted another just like it. The shop was not thronged; by now I know where the religious stuff is kept, on some narrow shelves in the back between the literary criticism and the psychology. The Dorothy Day book wasn’t there. But there were some religion books I hadn’t seen before, in half a dozen plastic milk crates on the floor: a hundred books in all, the dust jackets neatly covered in plastic. Here was Karl Barth in English and in German. Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm. Paul Tillich’s Theology of Peace. The Pope from the Ghetto. The Underground Church. Christian Yoga.

Clearly somebody had sold off a whole library, had brought in books that had been bought with care over the years. As I sorted through them, half kneeling, half squatting, I wondered who had sold them and why, but my mind had already supplied a scenario. A priest had lost his faith. I pictured him puttering in an empty church at midweek when it came-the knowledge that Christianity could no longer hold him-perhaps all at once like a hailstorm, perhaps subtly like dust settling on the doorsill. So out with the cardigans went the theological library. The priest, after the appropriate season of doubt, moved on.

That priest could have been the protagonist of City of God. The novel centers on Thomas "Pem" Pemberton, whose life and calling, already in doubt, are altered once and for all when the brass altar cross is stolen from the church in the East Village ("Saint Timothy’s, Episcopal, typical New York Brownstone Ecclesiastic") where he is rector, along with candlesticks and items from the sacristy. A few days after the theft, Pem spies an African street vendor wearing the purple Lenten vestments; the candlesticks turn up at a secondhand shop. And, after a few prank calls, a rabbi phones to inform him that the cross has been found on the roof of his brownstone synagogue on the Upper West Side, where the rabbi, Joshua Gruen, and his lovely wife Sarah Blumenthal, a rabbi herself and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, are attempting to "redesign" Jewish tradition through a movement they call Evolutionary Judaism. Priest and rabbis alike wonder who left the cross atop the synagogue and what they meant by it. Pem, who as a rector has a forgiving schedule and a flock of five, dubs himself a "Divinity Detective" and decides to find out. For giving a bold homily about the response of Christians to the Holocaust, he is "permanently unassigned" and his church deconsecrated; after Rabbi Joshua dies while in Europe in search of his wife’s father’s wartime diary, Pem joins Rabbi Sarah in life and love.

In the end, Pem, predictably and pointedly, becomes a Jew. It seems Doctorow started with the outcome-Christian priest converts to Judaism at end of millennium-and regressed from there. "If not in all stories, certainly in all mystery stories, the writer works backward," the narrator, a novelist himself, intones. "The ending is known and the story is designed to arrive at the ending. If you know the people of the world speak many languages, that is the ending: The story of the Tower of Babel gets you there. The known ending of life is death: The story of Adam and Eve arrives at that ending. Why do we suffer, why must we die? Well, you see, there was this Garden...."

It may be that the scriptural authors knew where they were going. Probably it is more complex. In any case, the novelist usually works differently. The ending of a novel emerges like a blessing, at once planned for and discovered. But Doctorow-acclaimed, popular, wealthy, a professor at NYU on the side, old enough for eminence and young enough for further triumphs, with his novels having been staged on Broadway and made into movies and published in thirty languages-seems to have been loath to write a mere novel. What he had in mind (the jacket copy suggests) was a mulligan stew of fiction, prophecy, journalese, cosmological musing, and the like-a "defining document" of our times that depicts nothing less than "a quest for an authentic spirituality at the end of the twentieth century."

The novel, it emerges (but none too clearly), is a conceit gradually taking shape in the workbook of a New York novelist, and the story I have summarized is swaddled in large tracts of extraneous material, carelessly written and arranged. There are attempts to render Einstein’s diary, and Wittgenstein’s too. There are banal cultural-critical riffs about the power of the movies. There is Sarah’s father’s journal, a compendium of every Holocaust cliché in the book. An ex-Times guy’s quest to get to the bottom of the story of an SS officer hiding in Cincinnati. A monologue "as if" by Frank Sinatra. A brief life of the narrator given in long lines of unstressed verse, as in the Jerusalem Bible. An embarrassing series of episodes under the rubric of the "Midrash Jazz Quartet," in which the narrator, again in verse, offers religio-existential glosses on Tin Pan Alley standards.

It may be that Doctorow’s ambitions were genuine. To judge from the aphorisms with which he studs the text, like cellophane-tipped toothpicks in a catered spread, City of God is meant to be a Big Book. It is a coda to the twentieth century, and so partial, tentative, inclusive. It is a mimetic riff on the century’s defining account of creation-the Big Bang, "a great expansive infinite series of universes expanding into one another, all at the same time." It is a philosophical crazy quilt made from the sheets of our "wrecked romance with God." It is a found object with the radiant energy of the writer’s consciousness and the manic street vibe of New York, an "island cathedral, a religioplex," a diaspora of diasporas, a city of God.

Alas, City of God is none of these things. It is just a bad book. Doctorow makes his big ideas small by offering them as is. Out of a yearning to experiment, a desire to imitate Don DeLillo’s Underworld, or a will to get the book into print before the last century was long gone, he let go of craft, taste, and discipline. If you see City of God for sale on a sidewalk or in a used bookshop, pass it by; more than a workbook, it is what jazz musicians call a "fake book"-a rough, hand-written guide to the standards, sketchy and artless, with no use other than to remind them how a song goes, in case they have forgotten.

Published in the 2000-05-05 issue: 

Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach. A third book, Controversy, is forthcoming.

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