Religious hysteria provides the focus for one of Oates' least powerful, most monotonic and glutinous explorations of the fevered mind. Nathanael Vickery is a child born of violence, son of a teen-age rape victim, raised by a Jesus-loves-me grandmother and an atheist doctor grandfather in the Forties near the Chautauqua Mountains. Grandma Opal croons about this special, God-touched baby, "He knows all there is to know," and sure enough, by the time Nathanael can walk and talk, he's seeing visions and getting personal whispered endorsements from Jesus: "The inhabitants of the world cannot touch you. . . . For you are of the same substance as I--you are not like other men." A splashy career in evangelism is inevitable for this child prodigy with his "rare powers of preaching and healing and prophesy," but Nathanael's cynical grandpa (soon dead of a stroke) is the least of the pubescent preacher's problems: he is prone to Pride--Jesus forces him to get humble by chewing on a live chicken--and, above all, Lust, in the person of Leonie Beloff, daughter of Rev. Beloff the Radio & TV Evangelist. Nathanael succumbs to this Lust, sort of, so he must be punished--on a live Good Friday telecast, he gouges his eye with a paring knife (as in "if thine eye offend thee," etc.). Strangely enough, this crazy gesture merely boosts Nathanael's Pentecostal ministry, and in the Sixties he's the Master of the Seekers for Christ and just about convinced that he is Jesus himself (a problem, because "If I am Christ, then who will save me?"). But in 1974 comes a final vision/breakdown, leaving Nathanael the quasi-schizophrenic whose voice we hear praying off and on through this book--a work which heats up every now and then with Oates' infectious relish for dark thoughts and deeds, but which leans on her most unlovely trademarks--sloppily wrought-up language, fuzzily pretentious thematics--at unflattering length.