Hari Kunzru

I hate writers who miss deadlines. So, at 204 pages (of 369) in Hari Kunzru's latest novel, I can offer only a partial endorsement of this California desert saga, which skips back and forth from 2008 to Spanish colonial days and many years in between. Gods Without Men (Knopf, $26.95) skillfully shifts among a large cast of players, who include a dissolute British rocker, a flying saucer cult, the shape-shifting animals of Native American myth, Iraqi refugees, Brooklyn yuppies, and Mormon heretics. All are seekers of a sort, some certifiably nuts and possibly homicidal, others just desperate and scared. What they're missing, in a sense, is the spark of the divine so absent from our secular world. They want answers, clarity, that the tangled material realm refuses to provide. Some of Kunzru's characters look to the sky for salvation, for UFOs to come provide guidance; others turn to peyote or even computer algorithms. For instance, the Punjabi-American father of a missing autistic boy is a Wall Street quant whose mathematical models reveal "a strange harmony to the movements of this grab bag of statistics," one that his boss (possibly another dangerous cult leader) tells him is "an attempt to stand outside time." It's the same impulse that draws so many pilgrims to the Mojave Desert, where they wait for the aliens. What the reader encounters, at least, is an intriguing series of coincidences as characters reappear and parallels recur over time. But if the novel falls apart in its last third, blame Kunzru, not me. BRIAN MILLER

Thu., March 15, 7 p.m., 2012

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