Teofil Voss, a melancholy, occultly-gifted Swede, discovers as an adult that he's actually a Polish Jew who was repatriated as a two-year-old to Sweden in 1943; he's alive at all, therefore, only by the greatest luck. This news stirs something in him that he can't quite name, and in the middle of his life Voss drops all and makes his way to Israel. Headed to the same place is Hanna Bardwell, the boyish young wife of a Gentile and successful Los Angeles lawyer, the mother of a little deaf boy; Hanna, Jewish, is haunted by her refugee father's suicide when she was a girl. In acute spiritual need, Hanna throws up her family and looks for pre-Diaspora roots in Israel. So Voss and Hanna meet--at an ulpan (Hebrew-language school for new immigrants) in Beersheba. Sad, spooky Voss (""The supernatural, breaking through, was straining and destroying the vessel into which it flooded"") speaks only with the most unadorned honesty, totally unsocialized; and Hanna, becoming his lover, finds in him some corollary to the uncompromising absoluteness of Israel itself. Worthen's attempts at plot--clumsy Voss is accused of a Jerusalem murder, then killed as a terrorist--are perforated at best, easily detached. What is well-registered here, however, is the out-sider-ness of the characters, the compass-lacking rhyme of the desert landscape. So even if this uneven first novel may not have quite decided whether it wants to be gnomic and rabbinical or a Semitic Bergman scenario, Worthen's shifting, talented clarifies--especially in the perceptive treatment of an American Jew in Israel--are highly welcome.