Earthly Powers

by Anthony Burgess. Simon and Schuster, $15.95. The narrator of Mr. Burgess’s extraordinary novel is Kenneth Toomey, an ancient, highly successful British novelist whose homosexuality has led (not necessarily forced) him into a lifetime of wandering exile. Toomey’s sister has married a third-rate Italian composer whose gluttonous, demon-chasing brother Carlo, a priest, has unexpectedly wound up as Pope. It is after this Pope’s death, when a campaign is launched to elevate him to sainthood, that Toomey, as witness to an alleged miracle, is moved to reconstruct the story of his own life and of Carlo’s occasional impingement on his affairs. All this sounds heavily clerical, but the story that emerges is nothing of the sort. It is more like an acid history of the twentieth century. It involves mischievous sketches of the literary great, all of whom Toomey has known; satirical summaries of the art fads of the time, all of which Toomey has endured; parodies of musical comedy lyrics, inane movie plots, and erotic purple prose, all of which Toomey has committed. There is even what amounts to a history of the gay rights movement, enlivened by the snarl and tinkle of homosexual jargon. There is also a great deal of action, some of it hilarious, much of it savage. Carlo, who believes firmly in the Devil and all his host, urges his congregation not to mourn the existence of evil, “but rather rejoice in the struggle to perceive the truly and beautifully good, in the great and divine gift of freedom to pursue the struggle.” If Toomey’s story proves anything, it proves that Lucifer definitely has the upper hand, a gloomy conclusion reached by way of memorably brilliant and entertaining prose.