By David Maine

St. Martin's. 244 pp. $23.95

The story of Cain and Abel is disturbing. It's not just the murder -- anybody who has a sibling can understand that -- it's God's infuriating favoritism. As Karen Armstrong notes, "In this story, God behaves like the most inept of parents." To be fair, by the fourth chapter of Genesis, He's still something of an amateur, but just what did He expect by accepting Abel's animal sacrifice and dissing Cain's grains? Why spark such deadly conflict between these brothers six thousand years ago (according to the Kansas School Board)?

Into this debate steps David Maine, an American writer living in Pakistan, who published his debut novel, The Preservationist, last summer. That one was about Noah and the flood. Now, Fallen tells the story of the world's first dysfunctional family after the parents "took their solitary way" from the Garden. Don't expect anything like Gregory Maguire's saucy retellings of classic fairy tales (Wicked, Mirror Mirror, etc.). Maine's not claiming that Cain was really the good one, or that Abel was an obnoxious playboy. His approach is far more subtle and muted; he's interested in fleshing out the psychological implications of these lacunal Bible stories.

But how to generate any dramatic tension with material that's so well known? Except possibly for George W. Bush and Michael Brown, everybody has a pretty good idea of what's going to happen soon after those animals start lining up in pairs. And when Cain invites Abel out to the field, we know they won't be tossing a ball back and forth. In The Preservationist, Maine surmounted this challenge by rotating the point of view among members of Noah's family, creating fascinating lives for his daughters-in-law, and filling in lots of scatological detail about 40 days and nights on the poop deck.

In Fallen he tries another tack: The book begins with Cain's death as an old man, haunted by his brother's ghost, and moves backward, chapter by chapter, till it finally arrives at Adam and Eve's first bleak day east of Eden. On the whole, I found this structure more clever than engaging. Aristotle and Dr. Ruth got it right: The rising action should precede the climax. Going the wrong way, we don't have much to look forward to after the fratricide. And the unique conditions of the world at this time further compound the story's dramatic problem: As Maine moves back toward the beginning of humanity, his cast of characters must shrink, the brothers grow less and less interesting until they finally disappear in utero, and we're left with a long section about Adam and his wife wandering around outside Paradise.

The book's best moments take place in the middle, when the family is at its fullest. Maine is enormously talented at extrapolating rich characters from a few brief verses in the Scriptures. In his telling, the first family is comically (and tragically) typical. Who can't remember that antediluvian time when, as Abel says, "I know everybody there is. My parents and sisters and brothers. We're all the people in the world." And they struggle with problems common to any family. How can parents hide their preference for a good-natured boy over a brooding young man who constantly challenges them? Cain's annoying shrug drives his father to distraction. Adam can't understand why his older son is so obsessed with what's fair. In his most defiant mood, Cain throws the whole Fall in his dad's face: "You think you understand how to keep God happy?" he taunts. "A bit late for that I'd say, once He's already thrown you out. And how are you so sure that you've got it right this time?" At moments like this, the ancient story has never seemed more contemporary, more personal.

God's rejection of Cain's sacrifice and His confrontation of Cain after the murder are depicted with an appropriate degree of shazam and awe. But what's most remarkable about Maine's work is his ability to soar above theological camps on gossamer wings of irony. Clearly, he's no fundamentalist, but you'd be hard pressed to pin him down on points of theology. There's a wonderful scene, for instance, when Adam tells his young sons how God made him and their mother. When he's done, Cain turns to his little brother and explains, "It's not the literal truth he's saying. It's a metaphor. . . . Like saying time is a river. Time isn't really a river but it passes in the same way." Doubly confused, Abel looks to his father made from dust and asks, "Is that what you mean?"

For Adam, the conversation goes downhill from there. Cain deconstructs the Garden story as any surly teenager would: "Why would God create a perfect place and then allow the Devil in it, just to trick you?" he asks defiantly. "Why tell you not to do something when He could have just removed the tree, and so avoided the whole problem completely?" Adam finds his son's impertinence shocking, but to Cain, it's all "craziness." What parent (or deity) hasn't been there?

Maine can't "justify the ways of God to men," but he knows a teenager's righteous rage and a father's predicament. As Eve thinks on their first terrifying day outside Paradise: "This isn't a lesson. This is life." *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

charles review