OUR FATHER By Bernice Rubens Delacorte. 212 pp. $16.95
Veronica Smiles is an intrepid girl explorer. She's crazy about deserts and spends as much time trekking through them as is seemly. This lust for travel -- or escape -- runs matrilineally through her family: "Whereas Veronica specialized in deserts, her mother had tended toward mountains and in her time had been the first woman to scale the Matterhorn ... Veronica's grandmother, a woman of questionable propriety, had scorned the mountains and the sand and had gone below the earth, potholing, an unlikely pursuit for a Victorian gentlelady. On her last expedition, somewhere in the Mendips, she had chosen not to surface ever again ..."
Veronica's grandmother, then, ended her life "halfway to Hell," and her mother, "in a desperate half-climb of the Himalayas," ended her life "halfway to Heaven." Another description of that area between Heaven and Hell, ecstasy and torment, is the earth itself, whose nature, whose meaning, Veronica is determined to decipher. "Our Father," though it masquerades almost throughout as a witty, even goofy, comedy, is out to tell us the meaning of human existence -- to give us a legible reading of life, death, death-in-life and the killing properties of sin.
But at first this looks like a simple, charming chronicle of a celestial one-night stand. Veronica, like those prophets of old who used to spend a little too much time in the desert, runs into God. His "singles-repartee," considering He's divine, is downright geeky: "Looks like we're in for a sandstorm," He opines. "Don't you know?" Veronica replies tartly, but before long they end up in bed. "All He wanted was to be loved," Veronica reflects tolerantly. "Didn't we all, for God's sake."
But God refuses to let Veronica alone. He follows her home to England. He dresses up in disguises, He plods after her like a love-struck masher. All she has done to encourage Him, really, is to call after Him, once, "I love you." God takes her at her word.
In Surbiton, her old family home, Veronica's life takes a pleasing turn. She has been a bit of a loner, a spinster, but she now meets a rich, handsome, kind, smart, pure-hearted gentleman named Edward Boniface who falls in love with her and insists that they marry. (She also has another pleasing, hideous encounter: On city streets, an anonymous, loathsome creature fumbles at her skirt and fills her with base and shameful delight -- the Devil is after her too.)
God begins behaving like a real pill. When Veronica goes out on dates, He follows along, thundering, "The Lord thy God is a jealous God!" Night after night He sleeps with her: "Each morning ... she was surprised by His sundry disguises. Once He was wearing a white butcher's apron and its spotlessly clean condition made it faintly unnerving. On another morning He was arrayed in a frilly frock possibly thinking that, in that guise, Veronica could be better won over. Once He charged about the bed in all the accoutrements of Superman and then claimed that He was simply in His day-to-day working-clothes."
Soon Veronica marries Edward Boniface, but she's already pregnant by Almighty God. The whimsy begins to peel away; we see the reason for these extended shenanigans. Technically, author Bernice Rubens asks the reader to believe that Veronica has forgotten most of her past. Each time she "explores" now, she ritually bathes, goes through old records, and finds that her family history is riddled with sin.
Veronica's mother, and her mother's mother, committed the quintessential female sin of not caring enough, of loving work above hearth and home. Her father, who seems a pleasant enough fellow, took the occasions of his wife's absences to commit a little adultery, enough to drive his wife to suicide. And Veronica, as a child, also committed a deadly sin ...
That's why God is pestering her now. Each sin demands ... well, the author asks, what does it demand, exactly? Punishment? If so, what kind, and why? Veronica has carried her punishment with her, in her life, all along. Her sins, her sorrows, have kept her apart from men, from children, from the chain of being. "Our Father" turns out to be a novel about the nature of atonement, which, gurus are always reminding us, spells at-one-ment.
Veronica's God is a jealous God. He wants her back, He wants to be in perfect union with her. This can happen only under certain circumstances. Sorrow, repentance, remorse, regret have nothing to do with the matter. The novel turns out well; there is a happy ending here, and it's reflected in Veronica's last encounter with the One she loves: "He raised His eyes to her face. But He did not linger. He did not tarry. He simply passed right through her. Like a whisper."
"Our Father" is full of technical creaks and groans. The past is revealed in indigestible little chunks. But Rubens doesn't seem to care. Why should she have to worry about plot lines and transitions? She just goes for it; she's figured out why adultery really is a sin -- it's not the act itself but all those pesky broken promises. She understands the failure of love and how to start it up again, and has figured out to her own satisfaction the logic of a life-for-a-life. The reviewer is the author of the novel "Golden Days.