“The great issues don’t need to be vulgarized,” observes the narrator of David Slavitt’s 15th work of fiction. “They are vulgar, for they are exactly those things that everybody worries about.” Of those great issues, perhaps the most inscrutable is the one most poignantly summarized in the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s 1982 bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Even before the longsuffering life of Job and longer still before Rabbi Kushner came along, the question was this: given the premise of an all-good and all-powerful Creator, how to explain the presence of rampant evil in the world? Crucial and ultimately irresolvable, the question has attracted responses ranging from the self-deluding to the completely mystifying—with Rabbi Kushner’s little book, dealing in a tidy brand of self-help theology, tending more in the former direction. By now it’s all been said before, and many times over. The wonder of Mr. Slavitt’s novel is that it manages to address the problem without ever quite going stale on us, or being—on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, anyway—less than refreshingly lively.

The narrator in Lives of the Saints is an unnamed reporter for a Florida tabloid, the Star: a middle-aged man with intellectual tastes, once a teacher of remedial composition at a community college, who through failure and despair finds himself reduced to manufacturing grotesque confabulations for the enjoyment of his paper’s credulous readers.

It is a type of work that directs the mind toward the contemplation of absurdity. Though Mr. Slavitt might have swiped these from real-life tabloids on sale at supermarkets across America—and with equally amusing results—his headlines for Star scoops are nonetheless witty inventions. “Dieter Goes Berserk, Tries to Eat Dwarf,” is a typical example; while better yet is this classic pair: “Space Alien Bodies Found on Mt. Everest,” to be followed in the next week’s edition by “Little Green Corpses Mangled by Bigfoot.” Inspired also by his study of the lives of Christian saints, Mr. Slavitt’s narrator has been affected by the views of Nicolas de Malebranche, a French theologian and mathematician of the 18th century. According to Malebranche, evil can be accounted for if you merely assume that things just happen, without reason or motive except in the mind of God, which itself is unknowable. There’s no point in trying to figure out why innocent people suffer and evil people prosper. In the sense of following necessarily from previous conditions, neither circumstance comes about in any intelligible way.

It is one of his book’s faults that on the hundredth invocation of Malebranche, interesting though he may be, the reader is tempted to start skimming. The other fault of Lives of the Saints is that, in his enthusiasm for mapping out the implications of Malebranchianism, Mr. Slavitt skimps on storytelling. His narrator’s assignment is to write a series of articles documenting the lives of a collection of people, all victims of a parking-lot shooting spree, by reference to the minor personal possessions they left behind—relics of these modern-day martyrs. So we proceed from one victim to another, including a failed poet, a travel agent, a little boy, and an exile from Khomeini’s Iran, each leaving behind mourners with their own ways of dealing with grief—while Mr. Slavitt, in brief paragraphs, offers page upon page of reflections on their fate.

On the other hand, Lives of the Saints offers other pleasures. Mr. Slavitt has a gift for writing fresh, bouncy, even funny prose about such knotty philosophical problems as the relationship between cause and effect. “There are,” he says in a typical passage,

according to Malebranche, two ideas of how nature works. In one, nature is a dynamic storehouse of causes and forces with their implied effects and consequences. This is the widespread but false view. The other possible idea is simpler, clearer, less widespread but nonetheless true—that there is only the temporal relation of before and after. What we think of as causality has nothing to do with any earlier events but is solely the will of God.

It is in the discrete details of his story, however, that Mr. Slavitt’s imagination is revealed to greatest advantage. His narrator talks about the “intimate authority” of personal relics, and Mr. Slavitt has invented a catalogue of them that could not offer more luminous testimony had they been plucked from real life. For example, at the home of Professor Stratton, the poet manque, we find pencils

lined up . . . on his desk pad. Not just a random handful, but an even dozen. And all of them sharpened to beautiful conical points.


Which suggests that writing didn’t come easily to him.

So he hated his job . . . He wanted, as Stephanie [his wife] has told me, to put his teaching behind him and devote himself to art. But the desk suggests a pencil sharpener rather than any demoniac maker of sentences.

Mr. Slavitt’s thumbnail descriptions of the characters he introduces are equally economic and telling. Of one fat young woman, he writes, “Cheryl was an intelligent and attractive girl before she undertook to eat herself into immenseness and thereby avoid those strenuous sexual sweepstakes of which she had been the reluctant observer.” Of his narrator’s overseer at the Star: “Lansberg is a quadrisexual, which is a person willing to do anything with anyone for a quarter.” Though the novel breaks down when read in full, the pleasure of its bits and pieces is considerable.


[Lives of the Saints: A Novel, by David R. Slavitt (New York: Atheneum) 213 pp., $19.95]