LEN JENKIN's novel New Jerusalem is a futuristic fable set in a 21st century that will never be, for it is simply the present day with some props added. Novelists often adopt imaginary or future settings that show little regard for plausibility -- e.g. Margaret Atwood's recent The Handmaid's Tale. The qualities of fable are not those of the western novel, and black humor particularly has few obligations to realistic tradition. Jenkin, whose previous works have been stage plays (including an off-Broadway version of New Jerusalem), clearly cares little for such traditional novelistic niceties as concern for detail and internal consistency. But his book's verbal freefall, despite some funny passages, eventually gets its author into trouble.

New Jerusalem is a prison island created by the United Nations back in 1987. Convicts are dropped by parachute and left to fend as they might, all escape attempts being technologically lethal. Forty years later (or 50, depending on which page you read), the U.N. abruptly decides to dissolve the prison, which has not received any new prisoners since drug reconditioning techniques rendered it obsolete after its first decade. The island's inhabitants have been living and breeding since then, and have renamed their prison "New Jerusalem." Faber, a reporter disillusioned because the newspapers of his day publish nothing but sensational trash (Jenkin's parody of present-day tabloid journalism is funny but out of place here), is sent to observe the island's last days.

New Jerusalem proves to be a bizarre combination of berserk tourist trap, Tammany Hall, and lunatic asylum. Faber's wanderings over the island allow the author occasion for scattershot satire of various aspects of Western civilization as well as "corruption, incompetence and greed." One example is a group of crazed citizens who believe, like a modern cargo cult, that the approaching U.N. ship is coming to bring them appliances, and dance around chanting "Sanyo! Betamax! Magnavox!" This obvious and even oddly quaint sally, whose satiric intent again subverts narrative credibility (were no new companies formed over the last 50 years?) is fairly typical of Jenkin's style.

ASIDE from such touches, much of the novel's action concerns a confused chase after the last remaining supply of a highly addictive drug, whose evil nature is underscored by the fact that its synthesis entails killing dolphins. When Jenkin wishes to emphasize the corrupting wealth the drug could bring, he says that the secret of its production has been permanently lost; later we hear that releasing it to the outside world would prompt the secret's rediscovery (thus precipitating mass slaughter of dolphins). Most details either wobble this way or are inconsistent with others. At times the author even seems to forget what century his story is set in, so that his characters refer to "the forties" as you or I might, and make joking allusions from our cultural background ("A little dab'll do ya").

The prose is better, but can be wildly uneven. When Jenkin decribes a burning building being consumed to ash without collapsing and then drifting into the air with its shape intact, one feels indulgence for the exuberant conceit. When he writes of a man's jaw flapping "open and shut like a switch on overload," one's only response is irritation that the author has not troubled to learn what he is writing about.

In the end an ocean liner arrives to take the citizens of New Jerusalem back to civilization. Faber has overheard that the U.N. soldiers have orders to repatriate everyone "if they are salvageable," so the reader has no trouble foreseeing that they will look appalled upon the crazed wretches and decide instead on expedient genocide. This is swiftly carried out, with Faber and girlfriend watching unnoticed from a boat offshore.

We thus move from black comedy to horror, and end on a note of redemption. Wandering through the rubble, the two find a wounded child, whom they nurse as they set about tilling the scorched earth of New Jerusalem. These affecting images echo the closure of famous Western narratives from Voltaire to Michel Tournier, and would be a more understandable borrowing from a rich tradition if Jenkin had not shown himself so indifferent to it.

Gregory Feeley writes frequently about contemporary literature, especially science fiction and fantasy.