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Fighting Fleet Street at home, atrocities abroad

My Name Is Legion
By A. N. Wilson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 506 pp., $26

Brace yourself. The first chapter of A. N. Wilson's excellent new novel is every bit as bloody as the ending of ''Hamlet." A devout Anglican monk, ''suspected of a string of terrible crimes," lies dying of gunshot wounds. A teenage schizophrenic, possessed by several demonic personalities, has been killed in a shootout. A young woman has been kidnapped and threatened with unspeakable sexual violence. As if all this mayhem isn't enough, terrorist explosions are ripping through London, a city gone haywire with greed, political corruption, social injustice, and religiosity, not to mention a frenzied, widespread licentiousness more often associated with Caligula's Rome.

''My Name Is Legion" chronicles the return to England, from West Africa, of Father Vivyan Chell, a former soldier and ''the voice of the African oppressed." Chell has come home to serve an impoverished parish in south London. At the same time, he is determined to do all in his power to call attention to the atrocities in Zinariya, an African dictatorship supported by Great Britain.

Father Chell's principal antagonist in his battle for justice, abroad and at home, is his former acolyte, Lennox Mark, now the owner of a string of tabloids, including The Daily Legion.

Mark's media empire is dependent on his mining interests in Zinariya, interests he has protected by supporting the country's current dictator, who has maintained power through terrorism, torture, and slavery. Wilson describes him with Dickensian gusto. ''Seated, Lennox Mark had a certain dignity, since his markedly short legs were not in evidence. He wore expansive double-breasted suits of a pale grey suggestive of summer wear or tropical kit, whatever the season. His face was fleshy, but not especially fat. He had a very big head, with a massive jaw. . . . His nose was blubbery, and had a suggestion of the later, more syphilitic portraits of Henry VIII."

Father Chell, by contrast, while not without his flaws, one of which is an ''overriding, addictive lust for women," is a tall, slim, ascetic-appearing man who looks ''more like a brigadier than a padre." He's no pacifist, but a militant, modern-day prophet, as angry with the hypocrisies of Anglicanism as with Mark and his incendiary newspapers. ''The church is inward-looking," he says, ''squabbling about gay bishops when it should be preaching the Gospel." Chell's real wrath, however, is reserved for General Joshua Bindiga, the despotic ruler of Zinariya, and the British officials, including the prime minister and the queen, who support Bindiga. At his rectory, a mecca for the homeless and oppressed from England and abroad, the activist monk is planning a truly Old Testament retribution.

Wilson, the author of 17 other works of fiction and 13 nonfiction books, including biographies of Jesus and Paul, is a master at threading together multiple plot lines without sacrificing dramatic tension. Enter 16-year-old Peter d'Abo, as frightening a villain as any I've encountered since Hannibal Lecter. Peter is possessed by ''a cluster of different characters," among them the ''murderous moron," an army major, and, hilariously and terrifyingly, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. Soon enough, an epidemic of fiendishly gruesome murders and maimings terrorizes the population of London. When Mark's Daily Legion and the police accuse Father Chell of molesting Peter, all hell breaks loose in Wilson's story.

One of the signal pleasures of ''My Name Is Legion" is the precise, fresh imagery Wilson uses to evoke one summer in London, from ''the rain-swept windy river that rippled like shaken ink in the night" to the ''half-hearted wet pall" of dawn after dawn in the great metropolis. From Fleet Street to Soho, Wilson knows the city and its most shameful secrets inside out. At times his satire is deliciously Swiftian, particularly when it's directed at tabloid journalism. ''The dinner happened during a week when there was not much in the way of news. True, a civil war in the Congo had killed two million; the Israelis and the Palestinians were engaged in further exchanges of conflict; there was a threatened nuclear war between India and Pakistan and the economy of the Argentine had imploded. But none of these tragic events seemed sexy enough at morning [Daily Legion] conferences to be made into stories."

Nor does Wilson spare America from his biting, sardonic humor. ''The disadvantages and cruelties of a society such as the United States where the Free Market was allowed to operate freely were obvious in terms of urban squalor, poverty, sickness. An economically free society was one where you had to arm the police."

As his novel unfolds, Wilson introduces us to an astonishing array of interesting people. My favorite, after Father Chell, is Rachel Pearl, the brilliant, atheist daughter of Jewish parents, who leaves her job at the Legion and an unsatisfactory relationship with a deeply cynical, married columnist to attach herself to Chell's mission for the homeless. My hunch is that Rachel's vision of Father Chell is closest to Wilson's own. While she admires the holy man's complete devotion to ''the asylum seekers, the homeless, the mentally ill, the lonely and the odd," she's also aware that he is ''heavily addicted to the exercise of personal influence." Perhaps it's this messianic drive that blinds Chell to the dreadful irony of his own ultimate resort to terrorist methods as a means of achieving the ''Kingdom of Peace" on earth.

I thought the last third of ''My Name Is Legion" ran on too long. Some of the chapters ridiculing the internal politics of Mark's media empire could have been cut with little loss. At the same time, ''Bleak House" and ''Barchester Towers" aren't exactly short books, either. Like many of the Scriptures Father Chell loves to quote, this novel may leave us with more spiritual questions than answers. But they are the right questions to ask, the questions we must continue to ask if we are to make any sense at all out of what it truly means to be human in a world of constant conflict. Short of absolute self-defense, is it ever right to use violence as a means to a peaceful end? Is there a God of love? Or did we create this concept? Can any of us, by renouncing success, power, and wealth, and striving, like Father Chell, to dedicate our lives to others and ''bear their burdens with them and, where possible, for them," make a significant difference?

Here's what I took away from this profoundly sobering, yet side-splittingly funny, novel. Yes, we live in a world of absolutely senseless suffering, in which the powers of faith- and ethics-based religion, constitutional governments, humane philosophies, and even love itself may be limited. Nonetheless, love is what we're left with. At the end of ''My Name Is Legion," it appears as though two characters may -- ''may" is the operative word -- have found some measure of peace in a hard-earned commitment to one another. Which two, I'll never say. Only that I found the ending of Wilson's novel, with its hint of some possibility for hope arising from the sorry hash that we frail mortals have made of our affairs for the past several thousand years, brave and satisfying.

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