Fiction lost a good popular storyteller when West (The Shoes of the Fisherman) started writing more like a prophet/philosopher than a novelist; as in Proteus (1979) he's out of his depth with an apocalyptic theme here, delivering it in speeches, dialogues, and Biblical rhetoric. . . but virtually no plot or action. Pope Gregory XVII (nÃ‰ Jean Marie Barette) has abdicated under mysterious circumstances--and only Jean Marie's old ex-Jesuit chum, scholar Carl Mendelius, is told what-really-happened. Jean Marie, you see, has had a vision: ""I was called to proclaim that the Last Days were very near and that mankind should prepare for the Parousia: the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus."" And the Vatican powers were ready to have the Pope declared insane if he didn't retire to a monastery. So, in the novel's first half, scholar Carl talks to friends, colleagues, family, and the ex-Pope himself, trying to decide whether Jean Marie is deluded or whether this vision was the real thing. But along the way to believing in the vision, Carl runs afoul of some terrorists (plus a CIA agent): he winds up in the hospital, thanks to a letter-bomb. The second half, then, focuses on ex-Pope Jean Marie, who now emerges from the monastery and begins a campaign to alert the world to the coming apocalypse (which will probably take nuclear form, since worldwide war is imminent). With a small band of powerful allies--one of whom is won over by Jean Marie's new healing powers--he begins a supposedly successful (actually laughable) media blitz: a book of cutesy letters to God, about the apocalypse, signed ""Johnny the Clown""; lectures; and a big hit song that goes ""Big boots, floppy clothes/ Painted face, button nose/ That's Johnny the Clown."" But then Jean Marie too is hospitalized (a stroke), and his physical therapist is a handsome, 30-ish Middle Easterner who turns out to be. . . yes, folks, ""the promised one"" himself--who finally decides to give the world another chance to clean up its act. Murky theology, naive geopolitics, hopelessly static fiction: only for West's most loyal fans and for devotees of longwinded, simpleminded End-of-the-World sermons.