How to explain it -- the agony and obligation of the thing? "Well," says Bernard Malamud, "let me tell you a joke."

A good and pious man falls on hard times. He goes to the synagogue, beseeching God to let him win the lottery in exchange for his years of faith. He leaves optimistic, but after nothing happens, he returns and pleads again. Still God remains silent, the supplicant poor. Finally he goes back a third time, infuriated now, railing at Jehovah, "Why don't you give me a break?" Suddenly the voice of God arises in a wind, and says to the man, "Why don't you give Me a break? Why don't you at least buy a ticket!"

Malamud isn't laughing. After all, man's abdication of virtue and inhumanity to God are the subjects of his new novel -- the most unusual and certainly the riskiest he has written. But at 68, after 11 books including "The Magic Barrel," "The Fixer" and "Dubin's Lives," after the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards, he has outfaced fear. "And that's why in 'God's Grace' you see a man who is not afraid to write about God's role in the universe."

The apocalyptic gloom of his subject seems hopelessly out of place in this cheery, sun-washed house, a rambling white-frame idyll near Bennington College, where Malamud has taught for 20 years. A comforting percussion of cooking sounds comes from the big kitchen where his wife Ann, a chipper dynamo of a woman, is devising lunch; on the porch an old tiger tomcat lolls ingratiatingly; and in the distance the cloud-dappled foothills of the Green Mountains hover like a Yankee daydream.

And Malamud himself -- still frail from a recent illness -- at first appears an improbable Isaiah. With his tidy demeanor, incessant self-editing ("no, wait, there's a better word . . . ") and deadpan, scrupulous style, he could be the most successful CPA in Westport. He is uneasy with talking about himself ("that kind of stuff, it's not up his alley," says his friend Philip Roth) and seems reluctant to start. He pauses to choose among several pairs of glasses, then sits down carefully, feet flat on the floor, long fingers knitted in his lap. Finally, with the anxious geniality of a brave man settling in for root canals, he says, "Now then, I think we can begin."

"God's Grace" combines a Miltonic ambition of theme with the vernacular crackle of comic dialogue. It begins with the destruction of mankind by nuclear horror and global flood, leaving one accidental survivor, a Jewish scientist named Calvin Cohn, adrift on a ship in the ocean. God appears to acknowledge the error ("though mine, it was not a serious one; a serious mistake might have jammed the universe") but condemns Cohn, too, to eventual death because man has "defiled himself": "They have destroyed my handiwork," God intones, "they tore apart my ozone, carbonized my oxygen, acidified my refreshing rain. Now they affront my cosmos. How much shall the Lord endure?"

Thus indicted, Cohn and a shipboard chimp named Buz drift onto an Edenic island where they discover a variety of other monkeys and Cohn attempts to rebuild civilization by educating them, issuing seven Admonitions in lieu of commandments. The story is freighted with biblical parallels and allusions to accounts of human evolution by anthropologists such as Louis Leakey. Topics familiar from Malamud's earlier fiction -- racial hatred, moral despair and the hope of trans-ethnic understanding -- here find simian counterparts. (Buz becomes a crucifix-toting intellectual whose moral neutrality borders on sadism.) In the end, bestiality proves intractable and the fledgling society convulses in predatory lust and blood sacrifice. Malamud's Fables

The idea for the book arose when a colleague at Bennington arranged for a private printing of Malamud's two previous animal fables, "The Jewbird" and "Talking Horse." "I thought, why not go at a novel with animals as the major characters." Ever since Aesop, he says, it is "the ultimate imaginative act to create a creature -- no, wait, there's a better word -- a living being who is not human and yet can talk, giving you the opportunity of presenting a miracle in every sentence he speaks."

And the theme had been in his mind for years, "the sense that I had that man was in trouble," that "man in many ways was a disappointment to himself." Not simply the nuclear nightmare, although "the fears that have arisen through 20th-century technology are horrendous. They've scared many of us out of our shoes. We're running even when we're not running." Nor only the fact that "we haven't conquered some of our major evils -- racial hatred, bigotry, intolerance." But also what he calls "the deceitful devaluation of man" in our age, the failure of culture to respect the individual soul -- and of that soul to value itself -- that is "one of the great sins of ourselves and our society." So man is "despised of God -- he loses his favored status in God's eye and thus loses the world."

He researched the book by reading Jane Goodall on chimps, and evolutionary treatises from Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould, and concludes that Cohn's efforts are "within the realm of possibility -- so much is being done, new experiments on animals, on language in animals, in a sense I'm just taking the next step." And if the book's gore-sodden denouement seems bleakly pessimistic, Malamud leaves a note of hope in George, a gorilla named slyly after one of the human precursors whose skeleton was discovered by Leakey. "The reader, if he's looking for a positive view, has to look around that."

Novelist John Hawkes, who has known Malamud for 20 years, says that "for a great, well-known writer to risk this kind of book seems absolutely marvelous." Risky indeed. There is an obvious peril in unleashing a deeply earnest and uncomplicated animal fable on a critical establishment steeped in cynical post-modern realism. Already John Leonard in The New York Times has said it "groans under the weight of its many meanings . . . I find myself tired of masks on clowns." Nor are the unflattering treatment of Christianity and emphasis on evolution likely to delight Moral Majoritarians.

"I'm prepared to accept all kinds of disappointing criticisms," says Malamud. "I've heard the book described as gutsy, and that's okay with me. In fact, I think all my work is subsumed under that rubric." He still relishes the outraged mail following "The Assistant," with its unsentimental look at shop-weary immigrants and its Italian character, Frank Alpine, who first robs a Jewish grocer, then works for him, then converts to Judaism. "One of the earliest letters I got was from a Jewish gentleman who wrote, 'Your father must be whirling in his grave!' "

His parents were Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants who had a small grocery store in Brooklyn. Malamud says he was the beneficiary "not of having happy parents, but of having good parents," who instilled in him the necessity of "doing well by others." He might never have become interested in language but for a bout of pneumonia that nearly killed him. When he recovered, his father in a fit of joy bought him a 20-volume "Book of Knowledge." In grammar school Malamud wrote stories, mesmerized by exotic words like "Sargasso Sea," regaling his friends with lavish recountings of movies "to save them a dime." Unlike the squalid and perilous urban tableaux of his fiction, Malamud recalls the neighborhood as "unexciting." It did not contribute to his widely esteemed ear for ethnic dialogue -- "That's a gift, that's where I was lucky. We had a lot of musicians and actors in the family" -- and left him only with "a hunger to be in the country" (which he satisfies six months of the year at Bennington before wintering in a rented apartment in New York's West 60s.)

He had decided to be a writer well before enrolling at City College of New York in 1932, but spent his twenties in a series of factory and retail jobs and worked as a clerk in the Census Bureau here. In 1940 he entered Columbia University's graduate school, and after teaching high school at night for nine years, took a teaching job at Oregon State, still without a published book. "In many ways, I am a real child of the Depression. There was no money around, and until I could support my family, I didn't know what to do with my art. That's the force of my strength of obligation. I am in many ways a strong-willed man."

His son Paul, 34, an editor at the United States Information Agency in Washington, agrees. His father forbade television in the house until the late '50s to encourage Paul and his sister Janna to read. And he set an example of "incredible and absolutely consistent discipline," reading every night in his slow, methodical way, underlining frequently. While shaving he would suddenly think of a sentence and "then he'd call out of the bathroom and ask me to write it down in his notebook," Paul Malamud recalls. But he always kept a clear separation between his work and his family, and "always insisted that the whole family sit down and have dinner together."

He similarly insists now that work will stop for lunch, served with relentless bonhomie by Ann, who in shuttling back and forth frequently calls out questions, blithely interrupting her husband in mid-sentence. Malamud defers obligingly, even seems glad of the pauses. "We haven't had many visitors here lately," he says, meticulously peeling his peach. It's not simply that he's recuperating under Ann's solicitous ministrations. Even after the Pulitzer Prize, "he tried not to be a celebrity," says Paul Malamud. "He doesn't prize material things all that highly, and the center of his life has always been his family and friends."

He's "the kindest person imaginable, terribly, terribly generous," says Hawkes. The two men meet often to read their work-in-progress to each other, and once when they were out walking in Bennington, they encountered a "terribly confused" young person trying to find the address listed in a help-wanted ad. "Bern listened patiently, and then began going from house to house. He spent about half an hour until he found the person who put the ad in the paper."

Malamud's work is infused with a baleful but robust humor, and Paul Malamud says his father "has a Swiftian streak in him" which leads to the "kind of acerbic, satirical quality" apparent in "God's Grace." But "one of the surprising things about him," says Hawkes, "is that he's generally quite, quite serious, a man of spirit." Indeed, Malamud's mind veers inexorably to the abstract. Ask him for a specific exemplification, and he pauses, blinks toward his lap, and returns an answer equally general, often religious.

In Malamud's cosmology, free will and an omnipotent deity coexist because God ("who invented man to perfect Himself") has an overall plan "to make man meet his obligations, but in a way he can't tell him about in advance -- to make him use himself best." Not surprisingly, the same paradigm recurs when Malamud talks about literature. (The first story, says Cohn, was "God inventing Himself.") After devising the thematic scheme and social topicality, he lets his characters range free in his imagination. "That's how an inventive writer earns his living. I can't outguess my characters all the time, although God knows I try. But when I get a character to surprise me, then I know I'm cooking with gas." The Mysteries of the Self

Malamud's genius is to capture the soul-scorching flashpoint at which painful self-discovery becomes moral epiphany. "Self-understanding is a very strong theme in my books -- working to penetrate the mystery of the self." Often his protagonists are impoverished Jews whose clashes with gentile hostility force self-awareness and spiritual rebirth, leading many critics to regard Malamud chiefly as a "Jewish writer." But "that's a reduction of my accomplishment. It diminishes something." ("All men are Jews," he once said, and "Jews are absolutely the very stuff of drama.") Still, he is invariably compared to Nobel laureate Issac Bashevis Singer. "Don't lump me in with Singer. We're very different." And although he often writes of largely ineffectual victims, "I don't go in for the schlemiel interpretation of my work. There's a difference of intent. I have not given up the hero -- I simply use heroic qualities in small men. Sometimes my characters do things so heroic that I myself blanch at their accomplishment." He cites the example of Frank Alpine in "The Assistant." "There ought to be more heroes than there are. Idealism has become a strange word."

His subjects are as protean as his themes are universal. In his baseball novel "The Natural" (1952), he limned the soulless rapacity of an all-American Iago in a thicket of symbolism, then turned to the world of poor Jewish shopkeepers for realism in "The Assistant" (1957) and spare spiritual parables in his first story collection, "The Magic Barrel" (1958). "When 'The Assistant' and 'The Magic Barrel' first appeared," says Philip Roth, "I was a young university instructor, and the orginality of that imagination was a revelation to me and my friends. Malamud, like Bellow, was somebody we'd been waiting for."

"The Magic Barrel" earned Malamud the National Book Award, as did the Dostoyevskian pathos of "The Fixer" (1967), based on the infamous Russian Beiliss case of 1913. His evocation of dogged dignity in the face of brutal anti-Semitism won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. " 'The Assistant' should have gotten a prize too," Malamud says. "But it was the same year that Cheever wrote 'The Wapshot Chronicle' and I don't think anybody even looked at 'The Assistant.' " Still, the awards considerably "strengthened my sense of my own worth and helped me to get into material I wouldn't have touched until then." For example, the vicious cultural clash between blacks and Jews in "The Tenants" (1971). "I expected trouble, but I didn't get it," although some black writers complained that Malamud had no business portraying a violent black character's search for identity. Malamud, too, had initial qualms. "But I've overcome enough of them to make me a free man. I think of my fiction as a free man's fiction."

He changed subjects radically again in 1979 with "Dubin's Lives," about the mid-life crisis and sexual longings of a bookish biographer whose obsession with D.H. Lawrence helps him rationalize an affair with a Benningtonesque barefoot hippie named Fanny at the expense of his long marriage. The texture and structure were a reversion to 19th-century forms, reflecting his admiration of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy; the themes self-exploratory ("What had my experience totaled up to? What did I know up to this point?") although not autobiographical. As he wrote in his journal for the novel, "One must transcend the autobiographical detail by inventing it after it is remembered." 20th-Century Hawthorne

However, despite his love of Russian and English 19th-century fiction, "my whole history as a writer is in connection much more with American literature than any other kind." In fact, in his realistic treatment of the morally fabulous, he much resembles Hawthorne. Malamud is suddenly animated. "That's what Lionel Trilling said!" and he is abruptly up and padding toward a bookcase. "Let me just get it here." He pulls down the volume, returns to his chair, and begins to read, a finger tracking the paragraphs: "dreamlike massiveness . . . theocratic cultures . . . life to be lived in control of the sterner virtues."

Ann Malamud appears, leaning through the doorway to tell her husband her schedule for the afternoon. He nods, stops, and with the self-conscious formality of a man for whom no emotion comes cheap, says, "I realize how dependent I've become upon you, and I'm grateful for all you're doing. I'm not ashamed to say it."

"Oh well," she says, eyes down. "It's nothing. All in a day's work."

For a long, soft moment they look at each other, and then she gently closes the door. They have been married 37 years.

Malamud says it still "haunts me that I'm not a better writer, that I could have taken better advantage of some of the opportunities I gave myself." One of them is his next project. "I have never gotten over an old desire to write a play," and he's rewriting one that appeared in the story collection "Idiots First" (1963). He is not teaching this year, but Bennington allows him to do as he pleases, and Malamud values the refuge. "I've never lived around a lot of other writers. Although I want that kind of stimulation, I don't want to make that kind of sacrifice to get it. I use the school to protect me and my vision of the world. But in the best of all possible worlds, I wouldn't recommend it. I'd advise a writer to live his life as fully as he can, and then write about it."

He writes by hand, then revises on an ancient black manual typewriter, and admonishes his students to attempt the "most daring elements of fictive life." That usually precludes six-figure sales. But "the division of the spoil takes on an importance greater than it should. Writers don't know what their true business is," and an author has to "get used to the idea of never becoming a wealthy man in a country where wealth means a lot."

Farrar, Straus and Giroux is only printing 30,000 copies of the novel, down 20,000 from the press run for "Dubin's Lives." Malamud is resigned. "It's a very sad, difficult time for writers," he says, and an author can easily become dispirited from "the sale of his books, competition from television and the demands made on him to produce the kind of books that will sell in droves." Publishers, he says, often require depressingly little: "I want more than that. I want the publisher to come to the writer with joy and respect and a sense of the miracles he's engaged in." No matter what the reviews may say. "There was a time," he says, "when I was too much concerned with what people were saying about my writing" and "I learned that I must throw reviewers off my back."

"But now," he says, and suddenly 30 years of discipline and hard-won pride are swelling his voice, lighting his eyes, "I've come to a point in my life -- sacrificed my youth coming to it -- where I know my work is strong."