E.L. Doctorow's 'City of God': an irresistible masterwork

On Books

February 13, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

The first of E.L. Doctorow's ten novels, "Welcome to Hard Times," was published in 1960, when he was 29. His most successful book thus far, "Ragtime," was published in 1975. His ninth novel, "The Waterworks," came out in 1994. Now comes "City of God" (Random House, 272 pages, $25). The wait was worth it.

It is an astonishing, irresistible book. At 69, at the height of his powers, Doctorow has fashioned a magically imaginative, unpredictable novel that is lushly rooted in moral philosophy and history. And for all that, it is a careening, rollicking delight.

The tale hangs upon a delicious device: An eight-foot-tall, crude and undistinguished brass cross is stolen from behind the altar of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in the East Village in Manhattan, a decaying parish almost bereft of parishioners.

Soon after, the priest, Father Thomas Pemberton -- Pem --receives a telephone call from Joshua Gruen, co-rabbi with his wife, Sarah Blumenthal, of the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism on the Upper West Side, which has a congregation even smaller than St. Tim's. The cross is on the roof of the temple, which is in fact a brownstone house.

With the desecration of the central Christian symbol and its intrusion in a synagogue, Doctorow alerts the reader that the book is to viscerally explore intertwined doctrines, clergy, families, philosophy and values -- personal and universal, immediate and historic.

There are innumerable narrative voices -- Pem, the Gruens, many more. The form of the novel, which sometimes seems almost random, is the accumulated work book of a former New York Times reporter, Everett. He undertakes to write a novel about all this, and thus becomes a main character, a sort of supervising narrator.

Doctorow's title, of course, comes from St. Augustine's treatise. Writing between 413 and 426 A.D., Augustine drew the distinction between the City of God (faith, the elect) and the City of Man (unbelief, the damned). The fall of Rome -- of civilization -- he argued, was the consequence of its moral decay, of the failure of piety to prevail over paganism. Doctorow's book raises that question for the end of the 20th Century.

Pem, the good father, is plagued by doubts -- all of them exquisitely grounded in theological sophistication and sensibilities. Doubt, or apostasy, also hangs over the wife-husband rabbinate. Pem is removed from his parish by the diocese, admonished, disciplined for free-thinking. Across town, the Gruens, seers of "Evolutionary Judaism," are well outside the reaches of the most liberal Reformed territory.

In Vilnius, Lithuania, where Joshua Gruen had gone righteously seeking the records of Nazi horrors in the ghetto, he is beaten to death on the doorstep of an ancient, boarded-up synagogue. (The Holocaust is a very major player in this book. Pem ultimately finds the documents Josh died seeking.)

Doctorow's novel -- Everett's rough notes, including interview transcripts -- has no chapters. It is broken briskly into changes of voice: anecdotes, some half a page, others several pages. Many are unorthodox devices: Ten classic American love song lyrics are presented as "standards," or "secularized hymns" -- reflecting love, yearning deep in human life. They are accompanied by free-verse labeled "The Midrash Jazz Quartet Plays the Standards." Midrash is a Judaic theological term for commentary on scriptures.

Beyond such bit-by-bit suggestions, I find the book so deft and prodigious as to make it folly to distill or digest its substance or purpose. But in a narrative poem, which comes up in several places, labelled "Author's [Everett's] Bio," there is a couplet that struck me as suggesting the heart of the book: "I ask how many times the world may come to an end/before the world comes to an end?"

So artfully knit is this work that it is difficult to lift illustrative passages. Much of the loveliest language and imagery comes in Everett's/Doctorow's reflections on beauties, ambiguities -- not in narrative continuity. Here is a characteristically fine celebration of the lyricality of hope:

"Perhaps the first songs were lullabies. Perhaps mothers were the first singers. Perhaps they learned to soothe their squirming simian babes by imitating the sounds of moving water, the gurgles, cascades, plashes, puddlings, flows, floods, spurts, spills, gushes, laps and sucks. Perhaps they knew their babies were born from water. And rhythm was the gentle rock of the water hammock slung between the pelvic trees. And melody was the sound the water made when the baby stirred its limbs."

As Pem's formal faith withers, the book progresses as an increasingly secular pursuit of the idea of of goodness, of a fundamental ethic. If God fails, as a force and as a concept, the book asks, what are the chances of a secular god?

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