By Nicholas Rinaldi

HarperCollins. 432 pp. $24.95

Forty pages from the end of Nicholas Rinaldi's new novel, an outrageous catastrophe occurs: Hijacked planes fly into the two tallest buildings of the metropolis in which the novel is set. The city is called Manhattan, and the buildings are called the World Trade Center towers. This disaster is a rather sick fantasy on the author's part -- and an unbelievable one. What perverse imagination would cause a writer to inflict this devil ex machina on his characters? With this climactic rupture, the book coalesces into a smoldering, hypersexual symbolist nightmare.

"Between Two Rivers" chronicles the life of a building, Echo Terrace, in a neighborhood called Battery Park City, an enclave in Lower Manhattan. Further burdening us with real-world attachments, the author names each apartment in this building after a renowned American.

One wonders if the book, like the apartments, is supposed to be organized in homages. An early chapter, which regards the ruin of the animal-obsessed misanthrope Nora Abernooth (ninth floor, the "Edward Hicks"), could be considered a tribute to our nation's cynical treasure of a novelist, Joy Williams. A later section describes the vicious abduction and rape in Brooklyn of the innocent Yesenia, one of the building's cleaning women -- a mash note to Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to Brooklyn"? The old German Karl Vogel (eighth floor, the "Meriwether Lewis"), who flew bombers for Hitler and whose home town was firebombed, may be a sympathetic reference to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s "Slaughterhouse-Five." (Not for nothing, it would seem, is the building named Echo Terrace.)

As our prurient eye glides from floor to floor, the book presents lovely and slightly impossible variations on physical laws, and sometimes emotional ones as well. Echo Terrace's doomed gatekeeper, Farro Fescu, spends most of his days philosophizing. In the very beginning of the book, as he meditates that "the building is going to the dogs," he discovers -- and becomes obsessed with -- a small pimple on his penis. This is only the first in a series of suspicious and malevolent psychosexual entanglements involving the building's residents.

A surgeon, Theo Tattafruge (fifth floor, the "Harry Houdini"), is abducted by the FBI, which forces him to perform a sex-change operation on an executioner for the Pinochet regime. Tattafruge botches the business and takes off in a Papua New Guinean funeral canoe, heading up the Hudson with a thermos full of ova. In an icky narrative twist, the eggs were harvested from the misanthropic animal-lover, Nora Abernooth, while she was in a coma.

And there is a noble whore -- Maria Gracia, of all names -- who has gallantly hustled her way through most of the building but who now reclines in the penthouse ("the Audubon") alongside a dying frozen foods emperor, Harry Falcon. Maria was a Red Cross girl in Vietnam, but because she believes she was a failure there, she has spent her subsequent life doing graceful penance with her body.

The residents' histories are notched with wars past, those markers of mankind's incurable mental illness. But don't be misled -- "Between Two Rivers" is not entirely a dark book. Rinaldi celebrates the romance of life's ephemera, allows his characters to indulge themselves in temporary pleasures, and lets them escape from their mistakes, if not their fates. For example, there is the Fourth of July incident, in which a slightly retarded building worker flies a kite from the building's rooftop during a fireworks party. The kite strikes a turboprop of the Goodyear blimp , which plummets as all of Manhattan watches. But at length "the pilot had regained control. The blimp skimmed the surface, the cabin touching water, and then it was rising again, slowly up, across the bay and lifting. And, as if the event had been staged for their entertainment, everyone on the roof burst into applause."

Like the suspiciously ovate blimp, the story of this mad mass of people, pressed atop one other (sometimes literally), doesn't ever quite crash from the weight of its own oddity. And always the reader is mindful of the dreadful march of time toward the autumn of 2001.

The story's chronology begins in July 1992. As for the rape, the whore, the sex change and the ova: Yesenia gives birth to the rapist's baby, Maria kindly rejects the jealous advances of Farro Fescu, the terrorist sex-changer is killed, and the eggs are never implanted. Instead, the canoe capsizes, and they fall into the Hudson, yet more abandoned spawn adrift in our cultural twilight.

After all this action, there is a break of eight years. The cancerous penis of Farro Fescu is cut off. The World Trade towers come down with great drama. After this onslaught of destruction, there's nary a phallic symbol in sight. And in the end, for all its terror, "Between Two Rivers" reveals itself to be a very gentle -- and quite deserved -- polemic against the monstrousness of man.