City of God

City of God

by E. L. Doctorow
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City of God by E. L. Doctorow

In his workbook, a New York City novelist records the contents of his teeming brain--sketches for stories, accounts of his love affairs, riffs on the meanings of popular songs, ideas for movies, obsessions with cosmic processes. He is a virtual repository of the predominant ideas and historical disasters of the age. But now he has found a story he thinks may be-come his next novel: The large brass cross that hung behind the altar of St. Timothy's, a run-down Episco-pal church in lower Manhattan, has disappeared...and even more mysteriously reappeared on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, on the Upper West Side. The church's maverick rector and the young woman rabbi who leads the synagogue are trying to learn who committed this strange double act of desecration and why. Befriending them, the novelist finds that their struggles with their respective traditions are relevant to the case. Into his workbook go his taped interviews, insights, preliminary drafts...and as he joins the clerics in pursuit of the mystery, it broadens to implicate a large cast of vividly drawn characters--including scientists, war veterans, prelates, Holocaust survivors, cabinet members, theologians, New York Times reporters, filmmakers, and crooners--in what proves to be a quest for an authentic spirituality at the end of this tortured century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452282094
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 02/28/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.34(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.78(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

E. L. Doctorow’s works of fiction include Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks, City of God, The March, Homer & Langley, and Andrew’s Brain. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, honoring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction, and in 2012 he won the PEN/ Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career places him in the highest rank of American literature.” In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction. In 2014 he was honored with the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

From the Hardcover edition.


Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York

Date of Birth:

January 6, 1931

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53

Read an Excerpt

So the theory has it that the universe expanded exponentially from a point, a singular space/time point, a moment/thing, some original particulate event or quantum substantive happenstance, to an extent that the word explosion is inadequate, though the theory is known as the Big Bang. What we are supposed to keep in mind, in our mind, is that the universe didn't burst out into pre-existent available space, it was the space that blew out, taking everything with it in a great expansive flowering, a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe of gas and matter and darkness-light, a cosmic floop of nothing into the volume and chronology of spacetime. Okay?

And universal history since has seen a kind of evolution of star matter, of elemental dust, nebulae, burning, glowing, pulsing, everything flying away from everything else for the last fifteen or so billion years.

But what does it mean that the original singularity, or the singular originality, which included in its submicroscopic being all space, all time, that was to voluminously suddenly and monumentally erupt into concepts that we can understand, or learn-what does it mean to say that ... the universe did not blast into being through space but that space, itself a property of the universe, is what blasted out along with everything in it? What does it mean to say that space is what expanded, stretched, flowered? Into what? The universe expanding even now its galaxies of burning suns, dying stars, metallic monuments of stone, clouds of cosmic dust, must be filling ... something. If it is expanding it has perimeters, at present far beyond any ability of ours to measure. What do things looklike just at the instant's action at the edge of the universe? What is just beyond that rushing, overwhelming parametric edge before it is overwhelmed? What is being overcome, filled, enlivened, lit? Or is there no edge, no border, but an infinite series of universes expanding into one another, all at the same time? So that the expanding expands futilely into itself, an infinitely convoluting dark matter of ghastly insensate endlessness, with no properties, no volume, no transformative elemental energies of light or force or pulsing quanta, all these being inventions of our own consciousness, and our consciousness, lacking volume and physical quality in itself, a project as finally mindless, cold, and inhuman as the universe of our illusion.

I would like to find an astronomer to talk to. I think how people numbed themselves to survive the camps. So do astronomers deaden themselves to the starry universe? I mean, seeing the universe as a job? (Not to exonerate the rest of us, who are given these painful intimations of the universal vastness and then go about our lives as if it is no more than an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.) Does the average astronomer doing his daily work understand that beyond the celestial phenomena given to his study, the calculations of his radiometry, to say nothing of the obligated awe of his professional life, lies a truth so monumentally horrifying-this ultimate context of our striving, this conclusion of our historical intellects so hideous to contemplate-that even one's turn to God cannot alleviate the misery of such profound, disastrous, hopeless infinitude? That's my question. In fact if God is involved in this matter, these elemental facts, these apparent concepts, He is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace, or comfort, or the redemption that would come of our being brought into His secret.

-At dinner last night, code name Moira. After having seen her over the course of a year or two and having spoken to her only briefly, always with the same sign within myself, I have come to recognize some heightened degree of attention, or a momentary tightness in the chest, perhaps, or a kind of, oddly, nonsexual arousal, that usually gives way in a moment to a sense of loss, to a glimpse of my own probably thrown away life, or more likely of the resistant character of life itself in refusing to be realized as it should be ... I understood as I found myself her dinner partner why, finally, it was worthwhile to endure a social life in this crowd.

She wears no makeup, goes unjeweled, and arrives habitually underdressed in the simplest of outfits for an evening, her hair almost too casually pinned or arranged, as if hastily done up at the last minute for whatever black-tie dinner she has been dragged to by her husband.

Her quiet mien is what I noticed the first time I met her-as if she were thinking of something else, as if she is somewhere else in all our distinguished surroundings. Because she did not demand attention and was apparently without a profession of her own, she could seem entirely ordinary among the knockout women around her. Yet she was always the object of their not quite disguisable admiration.

A slender, long-waisted figure. Fine cheekbones and dark brown eyes. The mouth is generous, the complexion an even ecru paleness that, unblemished by any variation, seems dispensed over her face as if by lighting. This Slavic evenness, particularly at her forehead under the pinned slant of hair, may account at least in part for the reigning calmness I have always felt from her.

She nodded, smiled, with a clear direct look into my eyes, and took her place at the table with that quietness of being, the settledness of her that I find so alluring.

Things went well. Let me entertain you.... I spoke my lines trippingly on the tongue. She was responsive, appreciative in her quiet way. On my third glass of Bordeaux, I thought, under cover of the surrounding conversations, I should take my chances. My confession drew from her an appreciative and noncommittal merriment. But then color rose to her cheeks and she stopped laughing and glanced for a moment at her husband, who sat at the next table. She picked up her fork and with lowered eyes attended to her dinner. Characteristically, her blouse had fallen open at the unsecured top button. It was apparent she wore nothing underneath. Yet I found it impossible to imagine her having an affair, and grew gloomy and even a bit ashamed of myself. I wondered bitterly if she elevated the moral nature of every man around her.

But then, when dessert was about to be served, the men were instructed to consult the verso of their name cards and move to a new table. I was seated next to a woman TV journalist who expressed strong political views at dinner though never on the screen, and I was not listening, and feeling sodden and miserable, when I looked back and found ... Moira ... staring at me with a solemn intensity that verged on anger.

She will meet me for lunch up near the museum and then we'll look at the Monets.

-And everything flying away from everything else for fifteen or so billion years, affinities are established, sidereal liaisons, and the stars slowly drift around one another into rotating star groups or galaxies, and in great monumental motions the galaxies even more slowly convene in clusters, which clusters in turn distribute themselves in linear fashion, a great chain or string of superclusters billions of light-years on end. And in all this stately vast rush of cosmosity, a small and obscure accident occurs, a chance array of carbon and nitrogen atoms that fuse into molecular existence as a single cell, a speck of organic corruption, and, sacre bleu, we have the first entity in the universe with a will of its own.

Message from the Father:
-Everett@earthlink. net

Hi, the answers to your questions, in order: the Book of Common Prayer; surplice; clerical collar with red shirt; in direct address, Father, in indirect, the Reverend Soandso (a bishop would be the Right Reverend); my man was Tillich, though some would stick me with Jim Pike. And the stolen cross was brass, eight feet high. You are making me nervous, Everett.



This afternoon in Battery Park. Warm day, people out. Soft autumn breeze like a woman blowing in my ear.

Rock doves everywhere aswoop, the grit of the city in their wings.
Behind me the financial skyline of lower Manhattan sunlit into an island cathedral, a religioplex.

And I come upon this peddler of watches, fellow with dreadlocks, a big smile. Standing tall in his purple chorister's robe. His sacral presence not diminished by the new white Nikes on his feet.

"Don't need windin, take em in de showerbat, everyting proof, got diamuns 'n such, right time all de time."

A boat appears, phantomlike, from the glare of the oil-slicked bay: the Ellis Island ferry. I will always watch boats. She swings around, her three decks jammed to the rails. Sideswipes bulkhead for contemptuous New York landing. Oof. Pilings groan, crack like gunfire.

Man on the promenade thinks it's him they're after, breaks into a run.
Tourists down the gangplank thundering. Cameras, camcorders, and stupefied children slung from their shoulders.

Lord, there is something so exhausted about the NY waterfront, as if the smell of the sea were oil, as if boats were buses, as if all heaven were a garage hung with girlie calendars, the months to come already leafed and fingered in black grease.

But I went back to the peddler in the choir robe and said I liked the look. Told him I'd give him a dollar if he'd let me see the label. The smile dissolves. "You crazy, mon?"

Lifts his tray of watches out of reach: "Get away, you got no business wit me." Looking left and right as he says it.

I was in mufti-jeans, leather jacket over plaid shirt over T-shirt. Absent cruciform ID.

And then later on my walk, at Astor Place, where they put out their goods on the sidewalk: three of the purple choir robes neatly folded and stacked on a plastic shower curtain. I picked one and turned back the neck and there was the label, Churchpew Crafts, and the laundry mark from Mr. Chung.

The peddler, a solemn young mestizo with that bowl of black hair they have, wanted ten dollars each. I thought that was reasonable.

They come over from Senegal, or up from the Caribbean, or from Lima, San Salvador, Oaxaca, they find a piece of sidewalk and go to work. The world's poor lapping our shores, like the rising of the global warmed sea.

I remember how, on the way to Machu Picchu, I stopped in Cuzco and listened to the street bands. I was told when I found my camera missing that I could buy it back the next morning in the market street behind the cathedral. Merciful heavens, I was pissed. But the fences were these shyly smiling women of Cuzco in their woven ponchos of red and ocher. They wore black derbies and carried their babies wrapped to their backs ... and with Anglos rummaging the stalls as if searching for their lost dead, how, my Lord Jesus, could I not accept the justice of the situation?

As I did at Astor Place in the shadow of the great mansarded brownstone voluminous Cooper Union people's college with the birds flying up from the square.

A block east, on St. Marks, a thrift shop had the altar candlesticks that were lifted along with the robes. Twenty-five dollars the pair. While I was at it, I bought half a dozen used paperback detective novels. To learn the trade.
I'm lying, Lord. I just read the damn things when I'm depressed. The paperback detective he speaks to me. His rod and his gaff they comfort me. And his world is circumscribed and dependable in its punishments, which is more than I can say for Yours.

I know You are on this screen with me. If Thomas Pemberton, B.D., is losing his life, he's losing it here, to his watchful God. Not just over my shoulder do I presumptively locate You, or in the Anglican starch of my collar, or in the rectory walls, or in the coolness of the chapel stone that frames the door, but in the blinking cursor ...

-We made our plans standing in front of one of the big blue-green paintings of water lilies. It is a matter of when she can get away. She has two young children. There is a nanny, but everything is so scheduled. We had not touched, and still did not as we came out of the Met and walked down the steps and I hailed a cab for her. Her glance at me as she got in was almost mournful, a moment of declared trust that I felt as a blow to the heart. It was what I wanted and had applied myself to getting, but once given, was instantly transformed into her dependence, as if I had been sworn to someone in a secret marriage whose terms and responsibilities had not been defined. As the cab drove off I wanted to run after it and tell her it was all a mistake, that she had misunderstood me. Later, I could only think how lovely she was, what a powerful recognition there was between us, I couldn't remember having felt an attraction so strong, so clean, and rather than being on the brink of an affair, I imagined that I might at last find my salvation in an authentic life with this woman. She lives in some genuine state of integrity almost beyond belief, a woman of unstudied grace, with none of the coarse ideologies of the time adhered to her.

From the Audio Cassette edition.

What People are Saying About This

D. T. Max

...when [Doctorow] writes about Jewish soldiers in World War II, or the look of the Manhattan waterfront, he shows that there are few novelists with talent as deep as his...City of God has much to admire in it...

From the Publisher

"An irresistible masterwork...Doctorow has fashioned a magically imaginative, unpredictable novel that is lushly rooted in moral philosophy and history...a careening, rollicking delight." —The Baltimore Sun

"Dazzling...heartbreaking, and superb...Doctorow's most ambitious and personal work." —The Miami Herald

"A deeply personal ambitious postmodern riff with a grander perspective on the universe...a novel that sets its sights on God and the galaxies that shadow the heavens...a stunning vision of metaphysics and faith, cosmology and spiritual emptiness, the rational mind and messianic longing...sparkles with Doctorow's rich language and ideas." —The Wall Street Journal

"Dazzling...enthralling and suspenseful." —Time magazine

"A great, bubbling, mewling, eloquent, despairing, joyous, agonized, earnest, desperate, and God-hungry work...brilliant." —Mirabella

"Doctorow is unequaled in his ability to breathe life into inert images and fading monuments of the past...{he} illuminates the thorny paradoxes of modern society with felicity and brio." —The New York Times Book Review

"The greatest American novel of the past 50 years...Reading City of God restores one's faith in literature." —Houston Chronicle

"Blooms with a humor and humanity...monumental." —The Los Angeles Times

Reading Group Guide

Q> One critic has written that City of God is a story about storytelling-about the ubiquity of narrative; about the whole of language existing as a storytelling tool to reflect and respond to reality; about consciousness perceived as a narrative (hi)story. Do you agree with this characterization? Discuss the dozens of stories that comprise Doctorow's book, from the story of the universe to Yehoshua's ghetto narrative, highlighting the interplay that exists among them.

Q> Discuss the structure, language, and imagery of City of God. In what ways does it mimic or recreate the rhythms of contemporary thought and life? How might Doctorow's structure-full as it is of spiraling ideas, images, and themes which recur and continually double back on themselves-be viewed as a sort of jazz-like innovation on the Wagnerian leitmotif? To what end do these spiraling repetitions of theme progress? How do they all relate to and riff upon the central mystery of the missing cross?

Q> When Pem goes to the cancer ward just after leaving the priesthood, he encounters a group of dying people singing twentieth-century standards. Discuss the implications of this scene. Why does it affect Pem the way it does? What does it mean when the pop song, that most "self-referential" and instantly recognizable of all musical genres, is transformed into a sort of secular hymnal?

Q>Compare and contrast the spiritual and metaphysical quests of Pem, Everett, and Sarah.

Q>Chart the course of Pem's relationship with Sarah Blumenthal, from their first meeting at the synagogue where the stolen cross is discovered, to their wedding reception at the close of the book. What qualities attract Pem to Sarah? Sarah to Pem? And in terms of the book's major themes, what are the implications of their union? How does their marriage affect Everett? What is it about these two ecclesiastics that Everett finds so fascinating?

Q>"You say all history has contrived to pour this beer into my glass," says the nameless Vietnam veteran to Everett. Later, Pem speaks of "a great historically amassed communal creation." And finally, much earlier in the novel, Rabbi Joshua asks, "Is time a loop? Do you have the same feeling I have-that everything seems to be running backwards? That civilization is in reverse?" What is going on in all of these lines? What theme is Doctorow underscoring here?

Q>How might the Jewish notion of Messianic time, in which all of history becomes meaningful retrospectively by the sudden and unexpected coming of the Messiah, be linked to the themes in City of God?

Q>8. City of God is one of those perfect books for reading clubs and discussions among friends, because much of the power in this novel derives from what the author leaves unsaid, from what lies in the spaces between the characters' perceptions, and from the ways Doctorow invites the reader to draw her/his own conclusions and make her/his own conjectures. Discuss your reactions to Doctorow's characters and their relationships to each other. What techniques does the author use to develop the novel's central characters? What particular qualities make these people so believable and/or affecting?

Q>Discuss the book's extended portrait of the man who discovers that his life is gradually becoming a movie. What is going on here? Fill in the blanks of Doctorow's metaphor.

Q>Pem ferociously struggles with the Judeo-Christian tradition-in much the way his real-life forebear, James Pike, did-because it appears to him to be more a narrative about power, genocidal destruction, and the renunciation of human reason and intellect than about faith, hope, and love. "I take the position that true faith is not a supersessional knowledge. It cannot discard the intellect. . . . How can we presume to exalt our religious vision over the ordinary pursuits of our rational minds?" Interpret Pem's remarks here to the bishop's examiners. Then re-read Pem's crowning toast at the wedding, the culmination of his struggle. How does this impassioned and captivating speech serve to bring together the myriad fragments that have preceded it in City of God?

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City of God 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
songcatchers More than 1 year ago
This novel was very hard to follow. It's supposed to be like a notebook filled with different ideas and thoughts of a NYC novelist. I had a hard time distinguishing the characters and who was saying what. The story was incoherent, unorganized and disjointed. I didn't have any feelings about any of the characters. The only segment that was interesting was the ghetto in WWII. I had a difficult time finishing this book and it turned out to be a disappointment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think that this book is a sign that E.L. Doctorow has definitely 'modernized' his writing. If you start to read this book, yet get a bit lost or almost entirely lost after a while, don't just stop reading it because in the end it all starts to tie together. I'm one of the few 14 year olds around who actually reads novels like Doctorow's, but, that's probably because most kids my age aren't interested in writing that actually needs to be read thoroughly. To wrap this up I'll say, read this book! It really is a masterpiece!!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago

City of God is a wonderfully funny novel, a 60's style anti-establishment satire of New York intelligentsia. The book takes the form of a series of interleaved monologues, or half-conversations, by New York 'characters.' There's an aging hippy priest, turned pedantic old fogie. There's the lead part in a B-movie horror flick (a nicely Shakespearean touch) who perpetrates the ultimate identity theft. My favorite was an elaborate spoof on Wittgenstein, complete with carefully numbered sentences, logically connecting the philosopher's self-proclaimed genius to the peristaltic movements of someone throwing up.

This isn't to give the impression that the book is nothing but sophomoric humor. In between some kitschy rock lyrics and a klutzy reporter with a bad habit of accidentally killing the people he's interviewing, an old man remembers his boyhood in a Nazi-run Jewish ghetto, and a Nobel physicist defends his right to faith.

Doctorow can get away with handling some very sensitive subjects because it's not him we're disagreeing with: it's 'Murray Seligman', who used to be that fat slob at Bronx High, or 'Thomas Pemberton', the Yalie who spent his Peace Corps year enjoying the native 'talent'. St Augustine saw the history of the world as a fight between the heavenly City of God and the earthly city of men. It's worth bearing in mind that Doctorow's City of God was completed *prior* to the tragic attack on New York.

Guest More than 1 year ago
If you love good plots, you will hate this book. However, if you love human beings and puzzling questions like, 'where was God during the 20th century?' or 'after the Shoah, is rapprochment between Jews and Christians possible?', or, if for any reason, your faith has been profoundly shaken; this book is for you. It is written in the form of a personal journal, i.e. a scrapbook of cogitations, characters, songs, memories, interviews, etc. seemingly loosely tied or not at all tied together with the literary device called 'the mystery novel.' The real mystery at the core of this novel is the one Mystery--God. This is the first Doctorow novel I've read. I think of it as a kind of love letter. My only complaint about it is that one evil fictitious event, placed in the very near past, is said to have occurred in Vilnius, Lithuania. This is unfortunate, because today's Vilnius isn't a dangerous place for Jews or anyone else to visit. The novel implies that the Nazis destroyed Vilnius' Great Synagogue. They didn't. The synagogue survived the war and the surviving citizens carefully stored all of the objects sacred to the Jews in it. Stalin had the synagogue destroyed. A large number of Torah scrolls were saved and are in storage today. They await a benefactor. My husband's brother told me these things. He emigrated to Vilnius five years ago and speaks, reads, and writes the language.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Calling this new book by E.L.Doctorow a novel, as the cover and title page announce, is a stretch. More appropriate, perhaps, would be classifying it an anthology of short stories, essays, highly personal and heartfelt observations, metaphysical musings and what might be charitably termed bits and pieces. All of these sometimes satisfyingly effective components are rather loosely tied together in frequently reader-unfriendly fashion by a hardly visible central plot line. So is 'City of God' worth reading? What Doctorow work isn't. Yet it is clearly not vintage Doctorow. But hey, even vines that produce the most glorious of grapes occasionally have off years.