Sigmund Safer is a cantor for a Baltimore congregation during WW II. He came from Poland not so many years before; what family he left back in Europe now is most certainly unrecoverable. With his wife and daughter, he lives peacefully--a Chevrolet, a paid-up mortgage, beloved tropical fish--cankered internally only by a personal lack of faith. Meanwhile, the congregation is embroiled in a schism, a possible breakup, presenting some economic decisions and moral gray areas. In contrast to Safer's moderation, the congregation's treasurer, Barney Fribush, is a rich vulgarian with appetites for life on every front. He develops as the cantor's alter ego, the connections between them unlikely but durable. Even as Barney is ultimately felled by colon cancer, the cantor suffers a heart attack that hospitalizes them both at the same time. The ""blessed mysteries"" of existence sharpen then, but still resist solution. Kotlowitz (Sea Changes, 1986; The Boardwalk, 1977, etc.) has 1940's Jewish Baltimore firmly his own by now; in its seemingly cozy confines, he can explore the large matters, like faith, without fake pomp and posture.