ON NOVEMBER 18, 1978, nearly a thousand Americans, about a third of them children, died in a remote area of Guyana's jungle. Soon enough the world would know about the Reverend Jim Jones and his following; and the investigations, explanations and interpretations would quickly follow. We were told that it was a cult which had committed cyanide suicide -- yet another example of how dangerous it can be for people to remove themselves so drastically from conventional social groupings and religious practices. We were reminded that hundreds of people had willingly followed a particular leader to the grave, an example of collective despair that surely has a lot to tell us about human nature. We were urged to consider what this tragedy means in some larger sense -- the spectacle of so many American exiles choosing an apocalyptic death in this last third of the 20th century.

Gradually it became clear that a substantial number of the dead had been bullied and viciously coerced at the end -- murder rather than a voluntary kind of self-destruction. Moreover, if this was, indeed, a cult, it was a highly unsual one -- headed by a demonic figure who had the qualities of a confidence man and a madman rather than an esoteric religious leader. Nor did there seem to be, on closer inspection, a big moral or cultural lesson to be gained from this disaster, no matter the instant, earnest efforts of various social commentators, some of whom, it seemed, were glad for one more occasion to rub their hands in glee while expounding on America's peculiar wickedness.

It is by no means something new in history that men and women (taking along children, too) submit to the will of a forceful, preachy leader. Pied Pipers, in the name of religious movements or political creeds, have done their fair share of thinning out the world's population. In this century, a two-bit artist, without scruples and spouting malevolence at every turn, lied and tricked his way into power, became German's Guehrer, and summoned a supposedly civilized people to the monstrous work of genocide. Meanwhile a vicious, conniving member of a self-proclaimed historical elite known as the "dictatorship of the proletariat" managed to show the world how, one after another, men in positions of responsibility could be made to turn on themselves, confess anything and everything, welcome publicly their own brutal humiliation, while elsewhere, such acts of atrocity were rationalized, even celebrated, by those who were not so humble as to deny belonging to one or another nation's intelligentsia. Put differently, Jim Jones was, alas, a piker -- and broke no new psychological or sociological ground.

Still, we have a right to ask, yet again, what manner of man this Jim Jones was, and who his followers were, and what could possibly turn so many of them into his desperately willing victims. In that regard, these books, each in a different way, help out -- though only somewhat. George Klineman, one of the authors of The Cult That Died, had been onto the crooked, demagogic aspects of Jones' "People's Temple" well before the Guyana holocaust -- and had, as a matter of fact, authored a powerful critique (published in New West ) which tiggered the sudden en masse departure to Guyana in 1977. His book offers all the facts anyone could want to know -- a story so grotesque, so comically absurd (at times) and so saturated with weirdly distroted biblical references that one wonders whether Flannery O'Connor, in some distant precinct of Heaven, is not chastising herself for being so unimaginative while among us.

He was first an Indiana huckster, this Jones; he peddled half-tame imported monkeys, of all things, door to door. He stumbled into a ministry of sorts, began to preach a blend of egalitarian social reform, laced with biblical imagery, to down-and-out Hoosiers, many of them black. He has passion. He had style. He was smart. He knew his audience -- their vulnerabilities, their hurts and sorrows, and not least, their unyielding hope, for all the suffering they had experienced, that some day, in some way, deliverance would come. These were Christians, mostly, in whom the old messianic dream had not died. That the Bible warned of the Devil and his slippery shoes was, for them, no big deal; they had been taken, fleeced, manipulated repeatedly in their altogether grim and impoverished lives. It was such a mix of yearning and forgetfulness that eventually helped them become such eager, prayerful members of this particular sectarian evangelical aberration.

As for the brazen commander of this terribly lost flock, he was scum from an early age -- ready to cheat and steal what he could when he could. Yet, as a young religious shepherd he claimed to worry about the poor; he tried to feed them. He urged all the time the virtues of interracial harmony. He asserted the social gospel -- a kind of insistent Christian egalitarianism. Soon the 1960s arrived. And the boss and his brethren moved west -- to California, where unusual messages and ways of living are the boring stuff of everyday life. And he made his hustle a richly rewarding part of his everyday life. Ordinary people, of slender means, signed their last cent over to him, a hustler who talked a big line, and to all appearances, at least part of the time, seemed to practice what he preached: the lowly uplifted; the scorned welcomed.

One gathers that a marked deterioration began to take place in the early 1970s. Kenneth Wooden's book tells how serious a deterioration -- a paranoid sadist at work. But an agile one, a smooth-talking one, a psychologically manipulative one. The young became his terrible bait and, later, weapon. He adopted black children, a seeming proof of his sincere idealism. He welcomed Indian and Chicano children to his flock -- told their parents that Christ loved the young especially, and surely would not much longer overlook these boys and girls, achingly at a remove from America's wealth and power. In time he had his attentive listeners, then his persuaded, and finally his virtual slaves, as the book by Ethan Feinsod and the book by Min Yee and Thomas N. Layton (both based on interviews with the cult's survivors) make abundantly clear. That descent into peonage had to be shrewdly arranged. Wooden lets us know how listeners were turned into agitated, remorseful accomplices: sexual traps; flattery; emotional bribery; blackmail -- an arsenal of psychopathy. Still, for every convert there were many who would have no part of Jones and his inner circle of fawning, debased loonies. These books, inevitably, try to explain why certain people became fatally trapped. But we have to remember that there are thousands and thousands of people who have had an exceedingly rough time of it -- and would never have any use for Jones and his ilk. It is far too easy, these days, to connect a particular mistake, not to mention a lunatic involvement, to some personal or familial mishap or tragedy -- while forgetting those who have suffered terribly and kept their wits about them, their dignity and self-respect.

But why didn't the individuals caught in a cult's clutches at some point get wise, say no, pull out? James Reston Jr. tries hard in Our Father Who Art in Hell to give us some philosophical distance on this recent horror. He is touching and eloquent in his descriptions of Jones himself, the various figures close to him, and especially, the far-off Guyana world where so many ended up, hopelessly spellbound by a man's crafty, crazy charisma. Reston's eye is novelistic; he has followed the tracks of a movement's downward slide, and is in a position to give us careful details -- the landscape, the particulars of habit, language, appearance. His larger purpose, however, is to make the terribly irrational somehow understandable. He strains to explain. And he does so, at times, with the good judgment of a writer willing to avoid certain faddish modes of analysis. He rejects, for example, what he calls the "determinist explanation" of contemporary psychiatry. These were not emotional robots, after all. At some point in their lives they had choice; they made a decision; they turned away from others, relatives and friends and neighbors with similar psychological histories of jeopardy and suffering. But for all the intelligence and emotional subtlety Reston mobilizes, they are significant and lamentable lapses, the most instructive of which, I believe, is this:

"Jim Jones was the singular product of the last thirty years of American history, and his following was the blend of disaffected blacks and whites for whom modern America provided no answer in religion, political action, or education. His overwhelming success in California, where he built the single largest Protestant membership of any church in that state in little more than four years, dramatizes the void he filled. His success was deeply rooted in the general failure of the 1970s. Without Richard Nixon, without the Vietnam War, without the demise of the civil rights movement or the departure of the traditional church from social action, without the current trend toward self-concern and hedonism, there would have been no Jim Jones."

A questionable line of speculation, at best; surely not something to be stated so categorically. One rather suspects that short of a second Eden, our world will never be without the likes of Jim Jones. Nor have we seen, so far, a society which eliminates the human susceptibilities that helped fill up this particular "ship of fools": gullibility, naivete, wild expectations, lunatic worries or fears -- as well as, of course, the normal and in some instances surplus quota of disappointments experienced, frustrations borne. Why must we leap from this awful calamity to a national mea culpa? It is enough to be reminded, as Reston does in his book's title, that hell is no distant place, but a possibility for us who live right here -- the dreadful ways in which we sometimes end up getting on with each other.

Of course, not only Americans were going to look closely at Jones and his followers. Nor would the American inclination to self-criticism fail to find, yet again, a strident foreign resonance. In Journey to Nowhere (to be published next month), a well-written, impressionistic narrative, Shiva Naipaul offers the sweeping conclusion that "Jim Jones built his movement on the debris of the sixties; on its frustrations, failures and apostasies." We are told, further, that our country "has temporized by buying off a black middle class and inserting the statutory black in television commercials." We find "integration" described as a "media event." And then there is this statement, no doubt the result of a long and thoughtful American stay, during which a nation's complexity was carefully studied:

"With regard to the unassimilable lumpen hordes, America has adopted an unspoken policy of containment and neglect, leavened by welfare and summary street executions by the police: a policy quietly endorsed by the celebrated flight from taxes, politics and bureaucrats. It is much nicer to worry about solar energy, the environment and whales. It is much more fascinating to speculate about planetary colonization and to pay Mr. Erhard hundreds of dollars to have one's consciousness raises -- ususally by being abused as an 'asshole' and writhing about on floors in three-star hotels, weeping and shrieking obscenities."

Who are these people who have such a "policy"? Exactly whose ("fascinating") preferences are so worthy of mention in connection with a book purporting unashamedly to tell us not only about a cult but an entire country? Naipaul talks contemptuously of a "Technicolor civilication." He says, with respect to the terrible outbreak a while back in the New Mexico penitentiary, that "friends" to whom he mentioned the matter "looked bored." He explores America's fringes with relish, and mischievously mistakes them for the country as a whole. "The traditions, atmosphere and techniques of Protestant fundamentalism were all present in the People's Temple," he informs us, "just as they are all present in the ecological movement." By the time names such as "Bucky" Fuller and Werner Erhard and Ralph Nader have been mentioned, along with Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson and Angela Davis, one begins to wonder why writers such as Naipaul, ever ready to leap from one to another tragedy to the broadcast possible social judgments, don't get it into their swollen heads to leave the dreary, well-traveled hot spots frequented by ambitious culture critics in favor of a conversation or two with ordinary American working people, no matter their race.

Lord, there is another American than the one Naipaul chooses to paint -- and profit from. (This book was first published in England, and must have delighted the snotty anti-Americans one occasionally meets there.) There is an America of conscientious, decent people. There is an America where fervent Christianity doesn't become kooky or intolerant -- no matter Jones or Jerry Falwell. There is an America no only of Dr. King or Dorothy Day, but thousands and thousands of hard-praying, kind-spirited men and women. dThere is an America where poor people, hurt people, black and white, don't ever, ever embrace cultist chiefs with their hoodlum brand of paranoia. There is even an America, contemporary self-flagellation notwithstanding, where well-off people don't succumb to what Naipaul describes as "self-centered neutrality." The world is full of horror: religious and racial bigotry in Britain, terrorism all over Europe, the vicious Gulag, the internecine strife that millions of Africans and Asians still have to endure -- including, Naipaul surely knows, the callous, murderous caste system of India, a brand of religious faith that makes the most extreme Protestant fundamentalism seem like a species of Unitarianism. If we have to understand the meanness of spirt that culminated in the tragedy of Jonestown, Guyana, we'd do well to watch carefully, lest bits and pieces of the malice, distortion and hyperbole of a particular historical event take root in ourselves.