In "City of God," the character who clearly speaks for author E. L. Doctorow says that if you believe in both God and reincarnation, "it may be reasonably assumed that a certain bacterium living in the anus of a particularly ancient hatchet-fish at the bottom of the ocean is the recycled and fully sentient soul of Adolf Hitler." Building a novel around such heavy moralizing isn't easy. First, you have to be able to write with this kind of vengeful elegance. Second, you have to lighten the load with a lot of literary inventiveness--diverse voices, jump-cuts, snippets from popular songs, etc. And third, hope that it all hangs together. In this novel, it does--brilliantly.
The plot involves the disappearance of a brass crucifix from a down-at-the-heels Manhattan Episcopal church ministered by Thomas Pemberton, a doubting, ponytailed relic of the '60s. When the cross turns up on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, Pemberton sees solving the mystery of how it got there as an opportunity to renew his flagging faith. And Pem's writer friend Everett recognizes a premise for his next novel.
"City of God" takes the form of Everett's workbook, into which he, the novelist-within-the-novel, dumps everything from barroom theological debates with Pem to an unearthed child's account of the horrors of the Kovno ghetto under Nazi occupation. The notebook conceit allows Doctorow to marshal the evidence he needs to bring Christianity into the docket for not suffering the same kind of crisis that the Holocaust wreaked on Judaism. As Pem asks his flock, "what mortification, what ritual, what practice might have been a commensurate Christian response to the disaster"? Although the crucifix on the synagogue roof is a clue, Doctorow's probing novel leaves open the question of exactly where, between a cold ocean hell and Pem's starting over, true atonement lies.