Doctorow's Sweeping Worldly Opus

The Wreckers, Michelle Branch, left, and Jessica Harp, perform at Monument Circle, in this Sunday, April 2, 2006 file photo during the NCAA Final Four weekend in Indianapolis. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Author E.L. Doctorow is known for his historical novels, often ready converts for film. This week CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard reviews City of God, Doctorow's latest.
Ask me what E.L. Doctorow's amazing new novel is about, and I will tell you: everything.

City of God is about everything, including both world wars, the Holocaust and Vietnam, but also science and religion, reason and faith, prophecy and sacrifice, tellers of stories and watchers of birds.

Einstein and Frank Sinatra are characters. So is an Episcopal priest, Thomas Pemberton, who will fall in love with a reform rabbi, Sarah Blumenthal, when the cross that's been stolen from the altar in his Lower East Side church mysteriously reappears on the roof of her Upper West Side synagogue. And I haven't mentioned popular music and Hollywood movies. They are characters, too, glorious and ominous.

That Doctorow should be so worried about movies seems strange for a serious writer who's been relatively lucky in Hollywood. His first novel, the mock Western Welcome to Hard Times, starred Henry Fonda in a film unfortunately not available on video.

But The Book of Daniel, about the children of the Rosenbergs, became Daniel, with Timothy Hutton and Amanda Plummer. And Ragtime, about J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman, not only featured James Cagney but also Norman Mailer! And Billy Bathgate, about Dutch Schultz and upward mobility through organized crime, allowed Dustin Hoffman to kill almost everyone except Nicole Kidman.
Reviews by CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard

This leaves still safe from flatness and shadow, still secure in moral substance and linguistic complexity, still full of "the dark horrors of consciousness," such unfilmed Doctorows as Big As Life, his science-fiction send-up. And Loon Lake, his variation on a Scott Fitzgerald theme. And Lives of the Poets, in which a writer reveals the obsessive secrets that inspire his fictions. And World's Fair, about growing up in the Bronx during the Great Depression. And The Waterworks, in which rich old men steal orphaned children for their bone marrow and spinal fluid.

Plus, now, this brand-new book of wonders and of miracles, City of God, impossible to imagine on any screen.

Impossible because how do you adapt a book as messy as the Bible itself, a hodgepodge of chronicles, verses, songs and sins - a brilliant scissors-and-pasting of Hebrew gospels, Greek myths, Yiddish diaries, quantum physics, surreal screenplays, prose poems on trench warfare and aerial bombing, and an archive f every scrap of witness to the Nazi occupation of Lithuania?

How do you film the Midrash Jazz Quartet, a rap group of Talmudic interpreters of such pop standard secular hymns as "Me and My Shadow," "Dancing in the Dark" and "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me?" What does gravity look like? Or "moral consequence?" Or "unmediated awe?" Or what Einstein calls the "first sacrament, the bending of starlight?"

How finally do we picture an Episcopal priest, a doubting Thomas so fed up with Christianity and so in love with Sarah that converting to Judaism is the only way he can think of to redeem himself from death camps? There's a word for a novel like City of God. That word is wow.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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