By Frederick Reuss

MacMurray and Beck. 249 pp. $22

In the general run of things, one wouldn't expect a novel of ideas--one that examines how our past leaks into our present, how our collective unconscious may suffuse our limited egos, or how the eternal world from time to time melts down our quotidian-time boundaries--to be a literary success. It's a mark of the expectations that must have surrounded this novel that it ended up being published by a small company in Denver, and it's a miracle that books like this get published at all, but they do, thank God. "Henry of Atlantic City" recalls Gregg Easterbrook's extraordinary novel "This Magic Moment," which probably only a few thousand Americans have ever read (but those who have will remember it forever), or Chris Merillat's marvelous works on the Gnostic Gospels (available only on the Internet). These seductive books are meant not just for readers who think but for those who yearn to peel away at least some of the layers of the day-to-day junk that clouds our ordinary lives.

Henry, this novel's hero, is 6 years old. He lives in an Atlantic City casino where his father is chief of security. Henry's got a mind that's a little different; he may be a genius, he may be a visionary, he may be an idiot savant. He teaches himself to read and--by happy or unhappy accident--picks up "The Secret History" of Procopius as well as "some gnostic books that had been found in a cave in Egypt. They were very, very old. The books said how the whole universe was created and explained about how all the bad things came into it. Everything in the universe was all a big mistake." Henry looks around at where he's living, and in the way that we bring our own way of reading to bear on the world around us, concludes that he's growing up in Byzantium: "There were people from everywhere, not just Greeks and Romans but Cappadocians and Phrygians and Goths and Celts . . . and Bulimics."

The flightiness of this kind of prose is anchored in Henry himself, who's just a sweet and bewildered little kid, despite his "vision." We know--though he doesn't--that his father is mired in a low scheme to fleece the casino in an elaborate multimillion-dollar heist. His dad loves Henry in an animal sort of way, but we see father and son separate: Henry knows, by the end of the narrative, that his father has "forsaken" him, once and for all.

Henry is pushed around by the grown-up world in a way that recalls Samuel Butler's "The Way of All Flesh," since adults, whatever their belief system, all too often find it sport to pick on children who aren't their own. When his father disappears, Henry is sent to stay with an Irish Catholic couple, and gets into no end of trouble at the parochial school where they send him. The nuns find Henry "blasphemous," as he trots out conversation picked up verbatim from the Gnostic Gospels, and he's stuck with spending time with a group of Catholic priests who try to set him straight. One is a regular parish hack, one an "educator" who runs an orphan home for boys where Henry will end up for a while, and yet another is a "doctor" who moonlights as a Jungian analyst. The three submit him to their own well-meaning inquisition.

Of course they can't find any "truth" in what the boy says, so they react in two ways. They bully him, of course. But because they are unenlightened as well as brutish, they hear all of what he says in light of their own limited beliefs. They can't "see" him in any way, and Henry's a little kid; he can't "see" them either.

Henry becomes what social workers label a chronic runaway. He's robbed by an unscrupulous cabdriver, he spends the night in a brothel, in a room tricked up to be "the Garden of Eden," and--following this scene--he's abandoned in a nearby zoo (a dark and perverse Eden, another emanation from our ancient, mythological past). In a satanic/godly gesture, Henry frees a gorilla from captivity so that she can "know" more of her world before her short life is ended.

So many ways of looking at our world! Those two unanalytic Catholic priests rest unafraid and unworried in their own theological views. The Jungian analyst comes up with another, highly imaginative, somewhat suspect interpretation. A minor character drifts through the story and hands Henry a book on baseball statistics. An aging woman conjures a lifetime drama entirely based on her having been a porn star. The orphans at that home for boys make life bearable for themselves by taking the names of rock-and-roll legends: Kurt Cobain, Otis Redding, Sid Vicious. Henry tells them he'd like to be known as Barbelo, "the first thought, the womb of everything, the mother/father, the first man, the Holy Spirit, the thrice male, the thrice powerful," but that doesn't go over too well with the other boys. Again, they can only see what they see: The rest of the world escapes them. Henry, by this time, is left with the resigned knowledge that he's a saint, with only his (guardian?) angel for company.

This novel reads far more appealingly than it sounds in paraphrase. It gains its literary credentials from its portrait of Henry, the lost child, and the chilling reminder that all of us are lost children in this sorry life, coupled with the enchanting proposition that for all that, we live, and have lived, in a place of mystery, flamboyant glory, and a beauty we will never fully understand.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.

Upcoming In Book World

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

MY FIRST 79 YEARS, by Isaac Stern with Chaim Potok. Reviewed by Terry Teachout.

AIN'T NOBODY'S BUSINESS IF I DO, by Valerie Wilson Wesley. A novel about what happens when, after 10 years of marriage, a woman finds herself alone. Reviewed by Rhonda Stewart.

MY CAT SPIT MCGEE, by Willie Morris. The famous Mississippian recounts falling in love--with a feline. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

THE PIANIST: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945, by Wladyslaw Szpilman. Reviewed by Deborah Sussman Susser.

THE FAN-MAKER'S INQUISITION, by Rikki Ducornet. In this novel set in post-revolutionary France, a fan-maker on trial for her life remembers the lost pleasures of the ancien regime. Reviewed by Carolyn See.