In several story collections and the post-Holocaust novel "After," Melvin Jules Bukiet has proved himself a fierce contender with God. While some of the stories resemble those of the late Bernard Malamud in his lyrical, magic-realist mode, Bukiet's predominant stance is rage. "Basically, I believe, but I don't like the Deity," this former literary editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun has said. "I think the Deity has unilaterally violated the covenant by killing 'the chosen people' time and again ... I think he doesn't like us."
"Signs and Wonders," Bukiet's second novel, continues his bitter quarrel with God. Set in Germany on the cusp of the year 2000, the story chronicles the rise of a most unlikely messiah. Ben Alef emerges from a prison barge on the stormy Baltic Sea -- having survived the barge's sinking by walking on water. He is accompanied by 11 other prisoners. These misbegotten "disciples" include murderers, rapists and a concentration-camp commandant. On shore, they are joined by a final apostle, a fisherman who is the token "good German."
Ben Alef works other miracles (a revival from the dead, a loaves-and-fishes bit at a wedding), gathers a devoted following and attracts worldwide media attention. Despite negative press revelations -- the concentration-camp number on his arm, for example, turns out to be the product of a Hamburg tattoo parlor -- his New Jewish Church thrives more than ever. No doubt part of its appeal is an orgiastic sin-and-be saved doctrine straight out of the cabalist salvation kit of Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century would-be messiah. In any event, an alarmed pope and German chancellor conspire to crush Ben Alef. Given the scenario of 2,000 years earlier, you can guess how all this ends.
Bukiet's blend of storytelling brio and audacious imagination calls to mind such disparate maximalists as the Salman Rushdie of "Midnight's Children" and the Mark Helprin of "Winter's Tale." He is at his best in furious bursts of scalding black humor, which come in two sizes: large-scale action scenes out of Cecil B. DeMille (Ben Alef's survival at sea, his day of doom at a Euro Disney theme park) and in miniature riffs à la Woody Allen ("I like a Messiah I can negotiate with," a promoter quips. "Managed properly, you can make a killing").
Bukiet is less adept, however, at getting inside his characters. Ben Alef may be the messiah, but he's hardly the novel's central character. That role is given to Snakes Hammurabi, a Hamburg drug dealer whose Turkish parents were cosmopolitan seekers after religious truth (his nickname is based on their last, and fatal, enthusiasm, for fundamentalist Christian snake-handling). But Snakes -- surely an alter ego for the author ("He could distrust the Lord and believe in him at the same time") -- is almost as much a mystery man as is Ben Alef, and he shouldn't be. Nor is Bukiet clear about the nature of his new religion and its relations to existing forms of Judaism and Christianity.
Still, "Signs and Wonders" is both thrilling reading and deeply intelligent commentary that dares to ask timeless questions: Does God care about us, and should we care about the answer? To have pulled off that delicate balancing act is, indeed, something of a miracle.