"Elmer Gantry" is the sort of novel Americans should read more than once - not so much for its purely literary merits as for what it tells us about ourselves. Dotson Rader is the latest in a long series of authors who have revived the theme and written variations on it, including Gore Vidal ("Messiah") and Robert Heinlein ("Stranger in a Strange Land").Like Sinclair Lewis, they embody values that got beyond literature into a sort of sociology, more charming if not more useful of its lack of scientific rigor.

Rader's qualifications for the assignment include extensive writing experience - three previous books; articles in Rolling Stone, Esquire, New York and other periodicals - but the most impressive credential is a name dropped coyly three or four times in the course of this novel, along with such other real-life names as Aimee Semple McPherson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst and Sen. Joe McCarthy. The name is that of evangelist Paul Rader, and coupled with the publisher's note that Dotson Rader "is the son of a welknown evangelist," it establishes clearly that our author Has Been There.

One may wonder, in addition, whether Paul Rader is given this shadowy but distinct separate identity in the novel to distinguish him from its central character, evangelist and faith-healer Nathum Charity. But surely that is not necessary; whatever he might to do friends, no author would treat his father like that.

Nathum Charity is a mess, believing what he preaches (at least part of it) but unable or unwilling to pratice it. He has the power to heal others (erratically, sporadically; it is a power he can neither control nor understand), but he suffers from a variety of ailments, some of which are serious. He is greedy, power-hungry, cynically and self-destructively aware of the difference between his sanctimonious public image and his profane, adulterous, alcohol-tinged private reality. He is a recist, a religious bigot, an uneducated clod who tries to ingratiate himself with Franklin D. Roosevelt by telling him Eleanor Roosevelt jokes. Most of the story take place at the height of World War II, at which time the bulk of his millions has been invested secretly in Nazi bonds. When he is smitten by the hand of God at the novel's climax (that is, when he suffers a stroke at the end of the 1944 Nathum Charity Greater Milwaukee Crusade), readers who have not entirely lost interest in him will want to cheer.

Readers who regard the novel as a serious form of art will have another reaction. They will consider this coup de theatre the final blow against good technique in what could have been an interesting novel but is more like a long, informative, often readable but fictionaly clumsy magazine article. It has to be considered a novel, because some of the names and a lot of the facts have been invented, but it suffers the stylistics shortcomings we accept in nonfiction, without that form's reassuring sense of conveying unvarnished truth about something interesting.

Rader's technical problems begin as early as the third page of his text, when Charity, in his hotel bathroom, launches into a long, sadly unmotivated and unrealistic monologue about his checkered past and his immediate ambitions, while he showers, shaves and urinates before the fascinated eyes of his 9-year-old grandson.

The clumsiness reaches mammoth proportions in the 10-year-old gap between the first and second parts of the novel, during which some of the most interesting things in the story are supposed to have happened - for instance, the grandson, who has been stricken mute at the novel's beginning because he saw his father inflicting unbearable cruelties on his mother, is cured when the narrative reopens, with never a word to explain how this happened.

The most irritating shortcomings, however, are in the basic style, which is that of nonfiction and rather lowgrade nonfiction much of the time. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a sentence more or less at random: "After super, Hearst, the most powerful newspaper publisher in the country, was driven to the 64-room cottage that he had built for his mistres, Marion Davies, an actress." William Randolph Hearst has already been introduced, and the reader has been informed (though it hardly seems necessary) that he owns newspapers. The number of rooms in his chateau, the name and profession of his mistress, have nothing to do with the story and sink promptly, properly, out of sight. The text is too clotted with such nonfunctional verbiage, as well as superflous characters and subplots - notably that of the assassin who is poised to shoot Charity at exactly the moment he suffers his stroke.

Rader does have a good ear for dialogue and a sharp visual sense. In many scenes, you can detect the author looking beyond his mass of readers to the eagle-eyed experts who will be examining the book in terms of film options. Some of these scenes are obvious - the religious cremonies, for example, and the two fictional seduction scenes with Aimee Semple McPherson. In the second of these, the successful one, she is piquantly clad in leather, having driven in on a motorcycle to conduct her religious rite.

But behind the lights, action and color, the characters, like most of the style, are wooden. They are puppets - though often quite complicated puppets - and the reader is vouchsafed no view of what (if anything) lies below their garish surface - only the sound of the machinery that moves them. Clanking.