Evil made it onto the ark.

In Timothy Findley's novel, "Not Wanted on the Voyage," the deeper, truer corruption of humankind -- which, in the Scripture that frames this tale, excited the deity's sorrow and wrath -- is not obliterated underneath a great and global flood. Rather, it boards the boat. It saves itself. It is, evil is, this very saving of self, blithely, righteously, cold-heartedly dismissing all the rest of life and creation.

Evil boards the boat in the people: in their antagonistic relationships and in the eldest and the youngest sons, Shem and Japeth, one to grow fat with self-indulgence, the other to grow plain mean with adolescent self-assertion. Evil boards the boat in a paranoia so blinding and absurd that it fears the playful porpoise as an enemy, calls it "Pirate" and slaughters it.

But most especially, evil boards the boat in the person of Dr. Noah Noyes, against whom the list of grievances is stupefying: His single-minded worship of a dying, doddering God not only sacrifices the gentle animals (who in this tale can reason, speak and love), it also sacrifices the peace, good will and love of his wife. In the name of God (in the name of self-preservation and self-esteem and comforts), he abuses her, demands her presence in the ark, then quarters her below decks and finally imprisons her in absolute darkness.

In the name of "Yaweh" such corruption boards and menaces the boat. And then the evil is darkened when the tale implies that Yaweh has died, caught in the aging that catches all. Consequently, there seems no other source of the evil than humanity itself, or certain forms of humanity.

These are tremendous themes for a book to sustain. Certainly, they are themes worthy of an author's investigation and the reader's struggle -- but only if the structure of the book, the style and the craft are equal to the issue.

In "Not Wanted on the Voyage," theme and execution are unequal.

Findley never seems to have chosen a single style, a single perspective on this dark drama, a single tone or manner or set of literary conventions.

He doesn't stick with the conventions proposed. In the midst of the grotesque he spells out perfectly serious judgments that ought, in satire, to be left to the reader. Grandly fighting the porpoise/pirates, "Noah -- in full glory -- stood on the poop deck beneath the black umbrella, his robes flapping and his beard flowing out around him, shouting . . . the utterly meaningless word: "avast!" That's funny. But then Mrs. Noyes, horrified by the blood, "turned away. Sick." That belongs in another novel.

But more than lapsing in manner, Findley often changes manners altogether. About his animals, fairies and unicorns he grows wholly lyrical. But lyricism is one-dimensional and satire is not. So what happens to his exaggerations and crimes? Suddenly they seem gross. They diminish to mere diatribe.

At still other times, Findley seems to enforce a realism of the human spirit and its capacity for cruelty. But against realism the lyrical presentation of his characters flattens to the paper thinness of cartoons. So then: villainy drawn realistically -- but perpetrated against characters drawn sweetly, simply -- descends to melodrama. But not even melodrama should take itself as seriously as this does.

The result of so much stylistic uncertainty is that the work feels arbitrary: Findley, neglecting conventions, says whatever he pleases, and we can't find the premises that might have governed his expression. Therefore, neither can we commit ourselves to his themes enough to care about them.

In the end it is hinted that the voyage has lasted forever, for it is to continue so long as people "go on throwing all the apes and all the demons and all the Unicorns overboard." That is, as long as people persist in destroying the good things that they have classified as "bad," the sad and lonely voyage continues. This hint that it continues today and that we are ourselves, with evil, passengers on the ark fails finally to discomfort or indict us.

Because, on the melodramatic stage, such messages merely saw the air.

And because we could not board the book's ark after all, when first it sailed.