October 25, 1982 12:00 PM

by Bernard Malamud

Calvin Cohn is under the ocean in a scientific deep-sea sub when the world comes to an end in a nuclear holocaust. Back on board the ship, Cohn is visited by the voice of God, who tells him, “I made man to be free, but his freedom, badly used, destroyed him.” Allowing Cohn to survive and cause Him problems is an accident, and it turns out that several animals are also mistakes. There is an exceedingly smart chimp on the ship, and he and Cohn finally land on an island that seems very much like Paradise. There are no birds or insects; there is plenty of fruit, and Cohn can grow rice. Then a big gorilla turns up, plus a few more chimps, including one young female. In Malamud’s biblical fable, however, the Old Testament is turned into a series of jokes—God tested Abraham, he writes, to “get Satan off his back.” Cohn makes up his own rules instead of the Ten Commandments: “Altruism is possible, if not probable.” When a tribe of nasty baboons appears, the civilization Cohn has been trying to construct begins to fall apart because violence erupts. Malamud, a two-time National Book Award winner and author of The Natural, is a careful, often funny writer who well deserves his reputation as one of the nation’s most talented novelists. His subject here is cosmic—the very nature of man. But while he’s daring, sometimes imaginative and sometimes entertaining in creating Cohn’s cosmos, he is also heavy-handed, and his ending is exceedingly grim. It casts a chill over all that has come before, even though the overall effect is that of an unforgettable sermon. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $13.50)

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