You want ambition? E.L. Doctorow'sCity of God
starts off not merely with a bang but with the big bang itself, that "great expansive flowering, a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe." It doesn't, to be sure, remain on this cosmic plane throughout. There's a mystery here, along with a romance, a chilling Holocaust narrative, and a deep-focus portrait of fin-de-siècle Manhattan--not to mention cameo appearances by that Holy Trinity of contemporary mythmaking: Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Frank Sinatra. But while the author ofRagtime
is no slacker when it comes to entertainment, he has more in mind this time around. Even the title, with itsAugustinian overtones
, tips us off to the author's preoccupation with belief, human consciousness, and "our wrecked romance with God."
Let's return, however, to that mystery. In the early pages of the novel, an enormous brass cross is pilfered from a church on the Lower East Side. Father Thomas Pemberton of St. Timothy's promptly sets off in search of it, dubbing himself the Divinity Detective. Yet he suspects from the start that this is no ordinary theft, with no ordinary solution:
So now these people, whoever they are, have lifted our cross. It bothered me at first. But now I'm beginning to see it differently. That whoever stole the cross had to do it. And wouldn't that be blessed? Christ going where He is needed?