In Hey Nostradamus, his latest communion with the zeitgeist, Douglas Coupland (''Generation X'') juxtaposes the moral fog of a Columbine-like high school massacre with the clarity of the Great Reawakening that swept the continent post-Reagan. The promising opening narrative is beamed from the mind of a dead Vancouver teenager, and periodically interrupted by prayerful interjections from the living: ''Lord, my son described the blood and water pooling on the cafeteria floor, coating it like Varathane,'' says one inchoate petitioner. ''There's something else he's not telling me -- a father knows that -- but what could be more horrible than -- Oh God, this is not a prayer.''
What is or isn't a prayer is a matter of some concern to both the random supplicants and the murdered narrator, Cheryl, a refreshingly untortured Christian whose intricate, interior game of moral chess (she secretly married her boyfriend in order to enjoy sex sinlessly) ends abruptly when she's gunned down by a disaffected loner. Cheryl's spiritual musings -- a restless and comprehensive squaring of faith and flesh -- provide a springboard for some potent, devastating storytelling. And it lasts for exactly one quarter of the book. It's all downhill from there.
The story re-centers on Jason, Cheryl's boyfriend, all grown up now and, predictably, a mess. But not just any mess -- a very synthetically literary mess given to scribbling long confessionals on scrap paper and entering into intrigues with Russian gangsters. (That's right: Russian gangsters.) Murder! Pregnancy! Bad dialogue! It's all here, a soap opera's worth, and two additional narrators -- Jason's lover, Heather, and his monstrously pious father, Reg -- can't recapture that Cheryl magic. What a sin, to squander her uniquely skewed religious insights by zooming in on characters ensouled with nothing more than novelistic blarney.