THERE IS A PASSAGE late in this novel where Pope Francis tells his fellow Americans to consume less and give to the poor. It is possible (though the publicity gives no hint of it) that the proceeds of the book are going to buy grain and tractors for the Third World; in which case fork out your almolst 13 bucks with a glad heart. If not, I can give you all need of the story in a few words, and you can dole out your charity with an even gladder heart. I am sure that Professor Murphy, who teaches jurisprudence at Princeton, has not, like so many of us novelists gone into the game for profit. There is too much uplift and too little diversion to betoken the mere entertainer. This is (lift up your hearts) a very serious book.

Declan Walsh is a fine soldier who kills first Japanese and later Koreans. He is also a Catholic and goes into battle with "Introibo ad altare Deum" on his lips, thus showing himself stronger in faith than in Latinity. He is demobilized and becomes dean of a law school, as well as author of a best seller about the Korean war. With surprisingly little trouble he is elected Chief Justice of the United States. His wife, whom the press of work forces him to neglect, drinks too much and dies in a car crash. Cardinal Galeotti, papal nuncio to the United States, tries to console him with: "Caro , we suffer, all and two. 'The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.'" But Walsh says bitterly: "I don't believe in a god who wants people to crawl on their bellies to him like beaten dogs. Job did that and got nothing but a bigger ration of s-t each time he surrendered his dignity." He even shakes his fist at the Washington sky: "Come down and wrestle with me, you yellow bastard!"

After such words he opts for silence and enters a Trappist monastery. Th Pope dies in an air crash, and the Conclave has trouble electing his successor. The Vatican is spending a fortune on black smoke chemical. Little fat Galeotti gets up and proposes and American who fought two kinds of evil in the field, held the highest legal office in the U.S. and is probably now, as a simple Trappist monk, learning the authoritative humility which marks the truly papabile . There are some dissentient grumbles, but Walsh is elected with a comfortable majority. He spent his childhood in Rome and thus even speaks acceptable Roman Italian, one up on his Polish predecessor.

Now beings the fulfillment of the dream of very liberal Catholic American. Pope Francis takes the Word of the Lord seriously, embarrassingly so, since he wants to disband the world's armies, liquidate the consumer society, sell the Vatican jewels, burn ponography, and threaten tyrants with his own crowd-rousing charisma and willing martyrdom. He does not actually yield to those progressives who seek to rescind sacerdotal celibacy, let women become priests, and reverse Paul VI's painful Witae Humanae , but he is sympathetic. He ends up being assassinated by a professional killer-on whose orders we do not know, but there is no shortage of public enemies. That's the story.

It's a story told on tape by three narators, into each of whose narrations and additive of idiosyncratic "style" has been injected. First the army sergeant, with his "Is-t you not," nect the prissy justice, all "Well, my dear fellow," and finally Cardinal Galeotti, who begins his paragraphs with Allora or Ecco and cannot distinguish between "tell" and "say". We are always on the outside while Professor Muprhy flirts with the Ford Madox Ford technique of the "unreliable narrator"; we're never in the head or heart of Francis as we always are with Fr. Rolfe's hero of Hadrian the Seventh . It's evidently unfair, though, to compare a fine work of literary art with the Guggenheim subsidized blockbuster of a writer whose primary allegiance is to jurisprudence.

Of course, The Vicar of Christ never puts toe wrong when it's a matter of legal procedure, whether curial or lay. A lot of impressive work has gone into Vatican topography and various Italian regional cuisines. With the cardinalate there has been a mainly successful attempt to put distinctive features under the red hats. On the whole, I have nothing against the novel except its lack of formal or verbal distinction, its constant unwillingness to digest mere information into a true recit , its failure to unite the military, legal and sacerdotal lives of the protagonist into a true holy trinity, and its appalling length. But this last is a mandatory feature of the American best seller.

Here is Burgess' Law of Best Sellers. A book will sell best if it is very long and very unreadable, since then the buyer feels he is buying a durable commodity. If he races through the book he buys in a single sleepless night he will fell cheated. He won't feel cheated with The Vicar of Christ: it will last him as long as his new meat-grinder. God (we hope) is not going to be cheated either. Whether you read Murphy or just me, $12.95 (we hope) is going to the poor. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption