BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The novel's elements suggest Gothic: a mental institution packed with bizarre inmates and doctors; a prostitute sweet on a war vet who spies on schoolchildren holding a pistol in his lap; a 12-year-old handicapped boy who is arbitrarily shot dead in the streets of his neighborhood.

Those streets are always dark in Portuguese novelist Goncalo M. Tavares' JERUSALEM (Dalkey Archive Press). So are the book's main characters' energy and spirits. They are all on the verge, or in the depths, of madness of one kind or another. They are also suffering from loneliness, despite being linked to each other, either physically or psychically. Their destinies eventually converge between three and six a.m. on a morning in May--with violent and disastrous results.

JERUSALEM isn't for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those who expect a certain kind of message from a noirish novel like this one. Although there is murder in JERUSALEM, the book is far from being a conventional kind of thriller or mystery.

The question asked isn't, "Who done it," but "Why was it done?" Why do people do such horrible things to each other--and to themselves? What's the reason for the evil that exists in the world--and what can be done to eliminate (or at least alleviate) it?

Dr Theodor Busbeck, a doctor and researcher at the Georg Rosenberg State Clinic, thinks he has the answers to these confounding questions. For much of his life he has been working on a massive study of the relationship between "horror and history." If he can codify and understand the link, he will then be able to understand mankind. "He wanted to grasp the concept of health in a broader way: the mental health of all humanity, of all mankind, the mental health of a city as an organized and efficient group in the control of violence. To understand history's mental health, that was the ultimate goal of his research project."

Dr Busbeck ultimately completes his project; it is published in five volumes, but soon after that his own life is wrecked by personal demons: his coldness and cruelty toward others, his pomposity and pretentiousness.

Tavares, who has been touted by Jose ("Blindness") Saramago, as Portugal's best young novelist, an eventual winner of the Nobel Prize, lays bare the irrational, quixotic and unpredictable roots of human nature with the careful, precise skill of a diamond-cutter.