Almost every exciting event that might occur in a Patrick O'Brian novel happens for real in Mr. Gurney's narrative. A woman disguised as a valet, for example, waits three months at Madeira, hoping to join her lover, the celebrated naturalist Joseph Banks, when his fleet visits the island to take on fresh water, wine and other provisions. Violent williwaws (squalls) dash ships to bits on coastal rocks, forcing plucky crews to build new, smaller boats from the wreckage of the old, then sail them over extraordinary distances to safe havens. Explorers land on inhospitable volcanic islands, leaving notes with their claims to discovery corked inside bottles and buried among the rocks. Even Desolation Island (a popular title in Mr. O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series) turns out to be an actual port of call, ''dismal and bleak,'' Mr. Gurney asserts, but boasting a wild cabbage that savvy sailors could eat to ward off the ravages of scurvy.

The explorers forged a chain of effort that linked voyages of different nationalities and epochs. Thus Mr. Gurney finds Russian sailors of 1820, during a long sea voyage, pulling into Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand, and eating ''descendants of potatoes planted by Cook's expedition'' in the 1770's. The continuity of the exploratory culture that claimed Antarctica survives into our own age, where we see rocket ships and space stations bearing the names of barks that once broke the Antarctic ice -- Endeavor, Discovery, Vostok, Mirnyi.

Dava Sobel, the author of ''Longitude,'' is working on a book about Galileo.

Universe as Doughnut: New Data, New Debate

ong ago in the dawn of the computer age, college students often whiled away the nights playing a computer game called Spacewar. It consisted of two rocket ships attempting to blast each other out of the sky with torpedoes while trying to avoid falling into a star at the center of the screen.

Although cartoonish in appearance, the game was amazingly faithful to the laws of physics, complete with a gravitational field that affected both the torpedoes and the rockets. Only one feature seemed outlandish: a ship that drifted off the edge of the screen would reappear on the opposite side.

Real space couldn't work that way.

Or could it?

Imagine that the Spacewar screen is wrapped around to form a cylinder or a section of a doughnut so that the two edges meet.

That is the picture of space, some cosmologists say, that has been suggested by a new detailed map of the early universe. Their analysis of this map has now provided a series of hints though only hints that the universe may have a more complicated shape than astronomers presumed.

Rather than being infinite in all directions, as the most fashionable theory suggests, the universe could be radically smaller in one direction than the others. As a result it may be even be shaped like a doughnut.

"There's a hint in the data that if you traveled far and fast in the direction of the constellation Virgo, you'd return to Earth from the opposite direction," said Dr. Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The new data have generated both buzz and skepticism among cosmologists in recent weeks. Dr. Tegmark and other astronomers agree that the measurements are far from conclusive, or even persuasive about the shape of the universe.

But if true, the doughnut universe would force cosmologists to reconsider their theories about what happened in the earliest moments after the universe was born in the Big Bang; those theories predict an infinite cosmos.

The new findings have brought to center stage the hope that astronomers may be able to test speculations about the shape, or topology, of the universe that until recently have been relegated to the abstract mathematical margins of cosmology.

The results are part of the bounty of data produced by a NASA satellite known as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, built and operated by an international collaboration led by Dr. Charles L. Bennett of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The satellite recorded the pattern of heat, in the form of faint microwave radiation, that fills the sky.

This radiation is believed to be the afterglow of the Big Bang itself, and thus constitutes a portrait of the universe when it was only 380,000 years old.

As the COBE satellite first confirmed in 1992, the microwave cloud is laced with ripples and splotches lumps in the cosmic gravy from which galaxies and other cosmic structures would ultimately form.

According to theory, these lumps are born as microscopic fluctuations during the first instant of time and then amplified into sound waves as the universe expands and matter and energy slosh around.

Now the new satellite has illuminated the findings of COBE (pronounced KOE-bee, for Cosmic Background Explorer) in exquisite detail.

By analyzing these waves cosmologists can determine many of the characteristics of the universe, which scientists have long debated, like its age and density. To their delight, the first results from the Wilkinson satellite, released last month, confirmed many of the strange ideas that cosmologists entertained in the last decade, including the notion that most of the universe consists of something called dark energy, which is pushing space apart at an accelerating rate.

"Cosmologists have built a house of cards and it stands," said Dr. James Peebles, a cosmologist at Princeton.

But to their even greater delight, perhaps, as they dig into the trove released last month, cosmologists are finding hints of even more strangeness.

In principle, in an infinite universe, the waves in the cosmic fireball should appear randomly around the sky at all sizes. But, according to the new map, there seems to be a limit to the size of the waves, with none extending more than 60 degrees across the sky.

The effect was first noted as a puzzle in the COBE data, according to Dr. Gary Hinshaw, an astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the Wilkinson probe team, and now seems confirmed.

If the universe were a guitar string, it would be missing its deepest notes, the ones with the longest wavelengths, perhaps because it is not big enough to sustain them.

"The fact that there appears to be an angular cutoff hints at a special distance scale in the universe," Dr. Hinshaw said.

Another analysis of the new map suggests that there is a special direction, as well as a special scale in the universe. While reanalyzing the Wilkinson data to eliminate radio noise from stars and our own galaxy, Dr. Tegmark, Dr. Angélica de Oliveira-Costa, also at Pennsylvania and married to Dr. Tegmark, and Dr. Andrew J. S. Hamilton of the University of Colorado have discovered that the universe appears lumpier in one direction through space than it does in another. When they combed finer variations out of the map, the remaining large-scale variations formed a line across the sky.

It could be a chance alignment, a statistical fluke, Dr. Tegmark said, or contamination from radio noise from the galaxy.

But in a paper posted on the physics Web site (at /astro-ph/0302496) late last month, the three cosmologists wrote that it was "difficult not to be intrigued" that their results bore all the earmarks of what are variously called small, compact, finite or periodic universes.

If the universe is finite in one dimension, like a cylinder or a doughnut, Dr. Tegmark said in an interview, there is a limit to the size of clumps that can fit in that direction. They couldn't be bigger than the universe in that direction, just as a guitar string can only play a note so low, depending on its length. So the biggest blobs would have to squish out in a plane in other directions. The way home around the doughnut would be perpendicular to that plane.

Nobody is yet claiming that this is a revolution. The notion of a special direction is on less firm ground than the discovery of a cutoff of large structures. "More detailed work in needed to clarify what's going on," Dr. Tegmark said.

Dr. Martin Rees, a cosmologist at Cambridge University," said he didn't think there was evidence for "anything crazy" in the data.

Even aficionados of finite universes are guarded. Dr. David Spergel, a Princeton cosmologist and Wilkinson satellite team member, called the results "intriguing," but cautioned that they could also be due to chance.

Dr. Hinshaw called the findings of Dr. Tegmark's team "surprisingly robust," but added, "I'm not sure it says something profound about the universe."

Dr. Alexei Starobinski, a theorist at the Landau Institute in Moscow, proposed in 1984 with his mentor, Dr. Yakov B. Zeldovich, that the universe could have been born as a doughnut. Dr. Starobinski emphasized that an infinite universe with ordinary Euclidean geometry was the most natural universe and still favored by theory.

"However, theory is theory, but observations might tell us something different," he said in an e-mail message.

The Science of Shapes
A Compact Universe
Like Mirrored Halls

The new work involves topology, the branch of mathematics that deals with shapes. Topologists are often accused of not knowing the difference between a coffee mug and a doughnut; because each object has one hole, the two can be deformed into each other and are thus topologically equivalent. In a similar vein, a figure 8 and a pair of eyeglass frames are also the same to a topologist. The more holes, the more complicated the topology.

The simplest topology is just the infinite space of the Euclidean geometry taught in high school. But some cosmologists have a hard time calculating how an infinite universe could have appeared in that kind of space. Nature, they contend, might have had an easier time making a small "compact" universe than an infinite one, and they assume Nature would take the easy way out.

"The basic idea is that God's on a budget," said Dr. George Smoot, a physicist at the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and a leader on the COBE team.

The simplest of these compact universes is something called a 3-torus, a doughnut wrapped in three different dimensions. This object is essentially impossible to visualize: it is the equivalent, in a way, of a cube whose opposite sides are somehow glued together. In two dimensions it works just like the Spacewar screen.

Living in such a universe would be like being inside a hall of mirrors, Dr. Tegmark said. Instead of seeing new stars deeper and deeper in space, you see the same things over and over again as light travels out one side of your cube and back in the other.

This mirror game is not limited to cubes and doughnuts. Over the years mathematicians, particularly Dr. William Paul Thurston, now at the University of California at Davis, and Dr. Jeffrey Weeks, an independent mathematician, have speculated about universes composed of various polyhedrons glued together in various ways.

In 1996 the French astronomer Dr. Jean-Pierre Luminet of the Paris Observatory and his colleagues Dr. Roland Lehoucq and Dr. Marc Lachieze-Rey, both of the Center for Astrophysical Studies in Saclay, France, developed a method called "cosmic crystallography," using galaxy statistics to detect and diagnose the repeating periodic patterns that would be created in the sky by light going around and around in differently shaped universe.

Finite or Infinite?
Problems Are Posed
For Favored Theory

Why would the universe want to do this to us? Partly to avoid the difficulties of the infinite, said Dr. Glenn Starkman, an astronomer at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Besides being difficult to create, an infinite universe is philosophically unattractive. In an infinite volume, he pointed out, anything that can happen will happen.

"Somewhere there are two guys having this same conversation," Dr. Starkman said in a telephone interview, "except that one of them has a purple phone."

Moreover, the idea that dimensions could be curled in loops occurs naturally in theories that try to unite gravity and particle physics, several physicists pointed out. For example, according to string theory, the leading candidate for a theory of everything, the universe actually has 10 dimensions 9 of space and 1 of time rather than the 4 we are familiar with. The extra dimensions are curled up into submicroscopic loops, like the threads in an uncut carpet pile, so that we don't notice them in ordinary life.

"This is the same idea on a very large scale," Dr. Smoot said.

Knowing that all nine of the spatial dimensions predicted by string theory are finite and thus on the same footing could help string theorists decide among the nearly endless possibilities allowed by the theory, scientists say.

But a finite universe would create big problems for the reigning theory of the Big Bang, inflation theory. It posits that the universe underwent a burst of hyperexpansion in its earliest moments. Among other things, it implies that the observable universe today, a bubble 28 billion light-years in diameter, is only a speck on the surface of a vastly greater realm trillions upon trillions of light-years across.

"There's no natural way yet proposed to get the inflation to stop and give a space that's big enough to house all the galaxies but small enough to see within the observable horizon," said Dr. Janna Levin, a Cambridge University cosmologist who wrote about finite universes in her 1992 book, "How the Universe Got Its Spots, Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space."

Dr. Spergel added, "If the universe were finite, then this would rule out inflation and require something new."

The Search for Patterns
One Convincing Sign
Of the Doughnut

So far, sporadic searches for repeating patterns of quasars or distant galaxy clusters that would occur in a hall of mirrors universe have been unsuccessful.

For finite universe aficionados, the first encouragement of note was COBE's discovery that the universe appeared to be deficient in large-scale fluctuations. There were no structures extending more than about 60 degrees across the sky. But the finding was subject to large statistical uncertainties, astronomers said.

There are other possible explanations for the cutoff in fluctuation size, Dr. Starkman explained. According to inflation the biggest longest waves are created first, and thus the missing notes are the earliest ones that would have been strummed by inflation's guitar. Perhaps, he said, this is telling us something about the beginning of inflation.

Dr. George Efstathiou of Cambridge University has pointed out in a recent paper submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society that the Wilkinson satellite data are also marginally consistent with yet another finite shape, namely a sphere. In that case, fluctuations larger than the radius of the sphere might be dampened, he said, producing the observed cutoff.

The most convincing sign of a doughnut universe, if it exists, astronomers say, could come from a search of the satellite data now being performed by Dr. Spergel, Dr. Starkman and Dr. Neil J. Cornish of Montana State University. "We're looking for circles in the sky," Dr. Starkman said.

In a 1998 paper they point out that if the universe is small enough, part of the cosmic background radiation, which essentially fills the sky surrounding us, will hit the sides of the "box" or the space war screen we are in and appear on the other side. The result, in the simplest case, would be identical circles on opposite sides of the sky with the same patterns of hot and cold running around them.

In the simplest case, the size of the circles would depend on the distance between the "walls" of the universe: the smaller the universe, the bigger the circles.

Success or even a definitive failure is not guaranteed. "It would be fantastic if something like that was found," Dr. Hinshaw said of the circles.

But success or even a definitive failure is not guaranteed. If the universe is finite but still much larger than today's observable universe 28 billion light-years in diameter the circles will not show. "Usually in science when we see an intriguing pattern that appears to contradict existing theory we do a better experiment," Dr. Spergel wrote in an e-mail message, but in this case, "Ultimately we will be limited by the fact that we can only observe the `visible' universe."

Dr. Levin was doubtful, "I suspect every last one of us would be flabbergasted if the universe was so small," she said in an e-mail message. When she first heard about the new satellite data, she reported, "I tried on the idea that we were really and truly seeing the finite extent of space and I was filled with dread.

"But I'm enjoying it too."

Living Better Digitally

A peek into the cyberfuture rejects the trendier predictions
How the New World of Information
Will Change Our Lives.
By Michael L. Dertouzos.
336 pp. San Francisco:
Harper Edge/HarperSanFrancisco. $25.


ew cultural spectacles glow as rosily as the pre-digital Futuramas and Tomorrowlands we remember from former World's Fairs and the original Disneyland. Dangling in a timescape between now and then, these gloriously naive, unsustainable futuristic visions redeemed themselves by their power to trigger authentic utopian feelings. They awakened popular imagination, linked personal aspirations with social progress, turned pessimism into faith and children into scientists. And, despite their self-serving corporate agendas, they were fun.

Does the future still seem so appealing? Michael L. Dertouzos' new book refreshingly attempts a return to basics, eschewing hype and spectacle. Mr. Dertouzos, the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science since 1974, has contributed to the development of many innovative concepts and prototypes in information technology, including public-key cryptography, time-shared computers and the World Wide Web.

He envisions the emerging world of information as a ''21st-century village marketplace where people and computers buy, sell and freely exchange information and information services.'' Shopping mall, shared work space, arts center and meeting place, it is his metaphor for the new century. In it a vastly more evolved Internet and the world economy converge. Thanks to such technological innovations as faster communications pipelines, computer recognition of speech and smarter and friendlier software, the information marketplace promises to increase productivity, foster proximity and decentralize authority.

Mr. Dertouzos winces at the kind of sweeping predictions we expect from latter-day futurists. He asserts that the information marketplace ''will be just another manifestation of ancient humans expending their ancient human lives in search of ancient human goals through new human tools and artifacts.'' The primal ''forces of the cave'' -- fear, love, anger, greed and sadness -- won't pass through it, so it cannot be a substitute for human bonds. He dismisses many trendy predictions as unworkable or undesirable: direct brain-computer interfaces, full-body virtual-sex encounters and domestic robots. Instead, he offers a pragmatic assessment of developments like speech recognition, group work and intelligent automated health-care assistants. There are highly readable explanations of ''bodynets,'' virtual reality and electronic commerce. His utopia is a plausible, neighborly place, not so far from where we are now; that is the greatest prognostic value of his book.

But I'm not so sure I want to live there. As its name makes clear, the information marketplace is constructed on an eminently businesslike model. There seems to be little room for crankiness, randomness or messes. If today's world resembles a city in its unpredictability, diversity and free space for fringe cultures, this future looks like a gated suburb. Although the author says the information marketplace ''will act as a gigantic flywheel of egalitarian customs and habits,'' its overall mediating influence also threatens to inhibit exciting collisions between mainstream and fringe cultures. And it is no utopia for artists: the new art forms he forecasts seem driven more by technology than individual vision. In fact, the information marketplace bears little resemblance to today's networked infoculture. The Internet is a meeting place (and breeding ground) for intense partisans of every social, political, sexual and avocational orientation. Though there have been attempts to establish embryonic information marketplaces, users resist fee-based services, copyright law and obtrusive advertising. The Net remains unruly territory.

Mr. Dertouzos asserts that the information marketplace will establish itself as a ''third revolution,'' equal in impact to the two waves of industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. But he believes this new upheaval carries the potential to heal the great Enlightenment split between faith and reason, to combine technology and human purpose in pursuit of a new wholeness. Yet he cautions that an unchecked information marketplace ''may well increase human dissatisfaction to the point where we will seek radical and wholesale change.'' Given technology's power to wreak social dislocations, it's hard to imagine the combined forces of faith and reason prevailing over the forces of the market.

He does not completely ignore negative aspects of the information marketplace, but gives them little more than lip service. He worries that an increase in telecommuting will disturb ''the whole balance between cities and suburbs,'' but avoids suggesting how the marketplace can offer a substitute for urban disinvestment. He believes the marketplace will neither create nor eliminate many jobs, characterizing the re-engineering and downsizing movements of this decade as ''convenient excuses for boosting short-term profits'' rather than as results of deploying information technology. He may be correct, but I wish he would offer a word on how the marketplace might lead to jobs for the unschooled and unskilled. With a rare degree of realism, he concludes that the marketplace, left to its own devices, will widen the gap between rich and poor. But he suggests only that the wealthy organize ''specific initiatives and programs'' to help have-nots gain access to information technology. This call for volunteerism seems faint in the context of this ''sweeping transformation.''

''What Will Be'' seems more likely to assuage corporate fears than to help ordinary citizens adjust to bewildering change. Mr. Dertouzos appropriates the language and innovations of his lab and of cyberculture, adapts them to fit comfortably within a corporate mind-set and assures the rest of us that the information marketplace will fulfill our future needs. He recapitulates the rhetoric of the 1939 Futurama, which offered consumers a whale of a ride if they'd only let General Motors do the driving. Promised automatic highways, kitchens of the future and hotels on the moon, we actually got the Interstate system, nuclear power and unsustainable suburban sprawl. Mr. Dertouzos' vision is a quieter one. He clearly wishes for a better world, but he points to a future that doesn't really seem to transcend the faults of the present. Perhaps we need to ask more of our utopian fantasies. Ultimately, ''What Will Be'' sounds a lot like ''Que sera sera.''

Rick Prelinger's CD-ROM series ''Our Secret Century'' explores corporate influences on American culture.

Inside the Beltway but Out of the Loop

President Clinton's first Secretary of Labor reports gracefully on four years of frustration
By Robert B. Reich.
338 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $25.


e know by now that Bill Clinton suffers from purple rages, that the White House is chaotic and that Dick Morris was Rasputin with polls. Since so many ''inside'' accounts have already been written about Mr. Clinton's first term, do we really need another, especially from an out-of-the-loop Labor Secretary? Robert B. Reich, a certified Friend of Bill who held the Labor post until after Mr. Clinton's re-election, indicates that he didn't really intend to write a memoir, just jotted down some notes late at night. Yet his book is arriving in the stores less than six months after he left Washington. Could it be payback time? Another attempt to cash in by telling all?

Actually, ''Locked in the Cabinet'' is delightful. Mr. Reich has no real secrets to spill, but he is a clever and observant diarist. He is ruefully funny about Washington, even more so about himself. There is a Thurberesque side to him that wasn't immediately apparent in his first six books, worthy tomes on political economy.

Before he officially began work in 1993, he was mysteriously summoned to the Labor Department by an aide who wouldn't explain why. Mr. Reich became Walter Mitty as he walked down the drab corridors, imagining that ''directly beneath the Labor Department, 20 feet underground, lies a secret bunker which becomes the real seat of government in the event of a nuclear attack. . . . Who would ever suspect a Command Center under the Labor Department? . . . When the nuclear attack begins, the Secretary of Labor is the first into the Command Center. The President and Vice President arrive as quickly as possible. In the event that they are immobilized, the Secretary of Labor must assume control. This procedure is code-named 'Operation Haig.' '' It turned out that Mr. Reich had been secretly summoned to a basement laboratory to give a urine sample; even Cabinet secretaries must take the employee drug test.

Mr. Reich has a fine ear for double-speak; throughout the book, he translates what people are saying into what they actually mean. Bruce Lindsey, the President's confidential assistant, casually asks him during the baseball strike, ''You guys doing anything about this baseball thing?'' (Translation: ''The President wants to know if you're on top of this.'') ''Been following it, Bruce,'' says Mr. Reich. (Translation: ''No.'')

He captures strange local rituals, like preparing for a Senate confirmation hearing. (''Practice saying it,'' commands the lawyer who is rehearsing Mr. Reich. ''I don't know, Senator,'' intones the secretary-to-be. ''Good! Again!'' orders the lawyer.) He learns that ''every memorandum will leak'' and ''every memorandum marked 'confidential' will leak even faster,'' that ''even a sincere non-spin is received as a spin, and duly counterspun,'' and that Cabinet meetings are a waste of time.

He laughs at craven posturing, including his own. His first Cabinet meeting turns into a Top This! show of symbolic frugality. ''I've reduced our fleet of limousines from five to two,'' proclaims one Cabinet secretary. ''I've got rid of them all!'' cries another. ''I've closed the executive dining room,'' boasts a third. (''Damn,'' mutters Mr. Reich. ''That was what I was going to brag about.'') The self-flagellation ends only when Lloyd Bentsen, the Treasury Secretary, balks at Mr. Reich's suggestion that they should fly coach. ''Coach?'' sniffs the lordly Texan. ''I don't believe that would be appropriate.''

This is not a mean book. Just about the only really rough treatment is reserved for Lane Kirkland, for almost two decades the head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and thereby the Labor Secretary's most important constituent. Mr. Kirkland poses as a European intellectual but to Mr. Reich he's a profane bully. (There is a wonderful dinner party scene at the union leader's elegant Washington house, at which Mr. Reich commits a faux pas by trying to put mint jelly on his foie gras. ''No!'' cries his hostess; the other A-list guests stare in disapproving horror; Mr. Reich knows he'll never be invited back.) Mr. Kirkland, says Mr. Reich, is a member of one of Washington's two real political parties, the ''Save the Jobs'' party, which wants to hang on to the status quo. (The other group he calls the ''Let 'Em Drown'' party.) Mr. Kirkland can't quite understand why labor is slowly sinking on his watch, and bitterly mumbles ''Beware treachery'' before he is finally ousted from his post.

Mr. Reich's own cause is to close the growing gap between rich and poor. During his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton, borrowing liberally from Mr. Reich's writings, promised to invest in job training and education. But once in office he fell under the sway of the deficit hawks -- especially Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, described by Mr. Reich as the ''most powerful man in the world.'' Too much Federal spending, the deficit hawks argued, could cause the bond brokers on Wall Street to lose confidence, which would drive up interest rates, which could choke off the economy -- which could cost Mr. Clinton his re-election. Since cutting middle-class entitlement programs would be political suicide, the poor (who don't vote) must take the hit. Hence, no money for Mr. Reich's programs to retrain out-of-work Americans.

Unable to break this closed circuit, Mr. Reich was reduced to hanging around the parking lot between the West Wing and the Old Executive Office Building, seeing if he could pick up any gossip about the important decisions being made inside. Finally, he found a back channel in his old friend Hillary Clinton, who told him to write down his ideas on unmarked stationery. But then the wicked Morris came along to steal the President's brain. (The President's conscience, for most of Mr. Reich's tale, is not much in evidence.) The Democratic-controlled Congress was no help. ''We're owned by them. Business,'' Representative Marty Sabo, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, matter-of-factly explains. ''That's where the campaign money comes from now. In the 1980's we gave up on the little guys.''

Mr. Reich skillfully reconstructs conversations and meetings, but perhaps a little too artfully. Anyone who has ever read an actual transcript of a White House gathering has been lost in a maze of unclear antecedents, unfinished sentences and incoherent logic. Mr. Reich's scenes read like polished scripts. He himself can be a bit of a noodge, and one begins to sympathize with Mr. Clinton as he glazes over at Mr. Reich's umpteenth insistence that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting shafted. It's probably a good thing the President tuned out Mr. Reich's more draconian solutions. The worst is a punitive tax on businesses that fail to exercise ''corporate responsibility'' by more equably sharing their profits with workers.

Still, Mr. Reich is humble about his own hubris. He recognizes that he can be a ''middle-aged loose cannon.'' When some workers are killed at a Bridgestone tire plant in Oklahoma City, he decides to go himself to slap on a fine and dramatically seek a court order to fix the unsafe machinery. As he arrives with his team on a drizzly morning, he imagines ''the scene on the evening news: barely visible through the mist, the silhouettes of America's runty but courageous Secretary of Labor leading his small battalion of gallant men to their fates, as they take on Industrial Evil.'' To Mr. Reich's dismay, Bridgestone responds by threatening simply to close down the plant -- at a cost of 1,100 jobs. Under attack from the local press for Federal meddling, he sheepishly backs off. His grandstanding, he knows, has backfired.

Despite his feistiness, Mr. Reich has a kind of endearing vulnerability. There is a moment, early in the book, when he, his two sons and his wife embrace, all weeping over his imminent departure to Washington. The scene could be mawkish, but Mr. Reich is so genuine, and so obviously attached to his family, that readers will be moved. In truth, Robert B. Reich never really belonged in the upper reaches of the Clinton Administration; he is too ingenuous.

Evan Thomas is an assistant managing editor at Newsweek. His most recent book is ''The Very Best Men.''

Freedom Fighters

Robert Eisenman's idiosyncratic history of early Christianity
The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
By Robert Eisenman.
Illustrated. 1,074 pp. New York:
Viking. $39.95.


or 15 years, in several books, Robert Eisenman has argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written by various groups of Jews from about 150 B.C. to A.D. 66, really derive from first-century Jewish Christians. His identifications of the man referred to in them as the ''Teacher of Righteousness'' (the symbolic title of the authoritative interpreter of Scripture for the community at Qumran, next to the Dead Sea) as St. James, the brother of Jesus, the eventual leader of the Jerusalem church, and of his opponent, the ''Man of the Lie,'' as St. Paul, have found few adherents. In over 1,000 pages of ''James the Brother of Jesus,'' to be followed by a 500-page Volume 2, he enlarges his views into a comprehensive history of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, which he interprets as a conflict between accommodationists and resisters to the dominant Greco-Roman culture. He will not persuade many, because his conclusions are improbable, his arguments incoherent and his prose impossible. Many chapters read like rough notes taken from a file drawer. Diverse themes are thrown together, topics are repeated without reason or cross-reference and arguments are left half-finished. The publisher's lack of editorial supervision is scandalous.

In the last 50 years, the Dead Sea Scrolls and new studies of Second Temple and early Rabbinic Jewish literature have broken down the artificial ''orthodoxies'' that were projected back onto Second Temple Judaism and Jewish Christianity. The diversity and vitality of many groups, movements and literatures have contributed to a sophisticated historical picture of the complex origins of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity. Mr. Eisenman ignores all this for a simple dualism: all Jewish and Jewish Christian groups are either contemptible collaborators with Greco-Roman culture (the authors of the New Testament and the rabbis who wrote the Mishna and Midrash) or faithful nationalists who fought Hellenistic influences. James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader not only of the early Jewish Christians in Israel but of the whole nationalist party. He says James, who kept alive the real teaching of Jesus and whose story was suppressed in Jewish and Christian writings, was the rival of accommodationist high priests and the authentic leader of the Jewish community.

In arguing this bizarre thesis, Mr. Eisenman ignores the normal canons of historical argument and of literary analysis. He treats later Christian sources, which contain legendary material, as historically reliable. Instead of critically assessing the biases of the so-called pseudo-Clementine literature from the third and fourth centuries, and of the first-century Acts of the Apostles, he declares Acts suspect because it is part of the canonical New Testament and judges the pseudo-Clementines as a repository of suppressed but reliable traditions. In fact, many detailed studies of both works have revealed their literary and theological motifs, biases and limited value as history. Though neither is historical in the modern sense, both may be used cautiously in historical reconstruction.

Mr. Eisenman, however, is not cautious. The origins of the Christian church in Syria are ascribed to an exchange of letters between Jesus and King Abgar of Edessa in a Syriac and Greek legendary tradition. In Mr. Eisenman's hands, this legend becomes simple history. The choice by lot of Matthias as Judas Iscariot's replacement (Acts 1) becomes an election of the ''bishop'' of the Jerusalem church (an anachronism). The person not chosen, ''Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus'' (Acts 1:23), is arbitrarily identified with James. Judas Iscariot becomes one of the Sicarii, first-century Jewish revolutionaries and assassins, because the names seem similar to Mr. Eisenman, and the Sicarii are really Christians, for no apparent reason. Though Mr. Eisenman's 50 pages of notes cite the ancient sources in abundance, he displays little interest in modern critical scholarship on ancient Jewish and Christian history and documents, and he thus adopts less probable interpretations without arguing with his peers. He justifies himself as a maverick fighting the ''dominant scholarly consenses'' from a position outside the ''traditional or received order.'' He laments the ''docile public . . . easily dominated by a religious or scholarly hierarchy.'' Against these biased and oppressive forces he advises ''common sense,'' and he acts out in his own work the experience of the imagined revolutionary group that opposed the Greco-Roman world.

Mr. Eisenman's interpretations are frequently inaccurate and biased -- for example, in the dedication of his book to three Jewish opponents of Rome mentioned by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. ''For: Monobazus and Kenedaeos, the two grandsons of the 'Ethiopian Queen,' Freedom Fighters and Converts, who gave their lives at the Pass at Beit Horon, and Jesus son of Sapphias, the Leader of the 'Galilean' Boatmen and 'the Party of the Poor,' who 'poured out' their blood until 'the whole Sea of Galilee ran red.' '' At the beginning of the war against Rome (A.D. 66), in a pass near Jerusalem, Judean forces defeated the Romans. Josephus names four people as distinguished for bravery: Monobazus and Kenedaeos, relatives of the King of Adiabene, and Niger the Perean and Silas the Babylonian. Mr. Eisenman, using an outdated translation, mistakenly says that Monobazus and Kenedaeos were among the 22 Jews who died in the battle. In fact, the ambiguous Greek sentence does not connect these four with the preceding dead because Niger and Silas turn up alive later in the narrative. Monobazus and Kenedaeos' grandmother, contrary to the dedication, is really Helena, Queen of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia, whom Mr. Eisenman arbitrarily identifies with Candace, the Ethiopian Queen, mentioned in Acts 8:27. The wording of his dedication makes it sound as if the other ''hero,'' Jesus, son of Sapphias, was the leader of poor revolutionary Galilean boatmen who gave up their lives at the Sea of Galilee. But Josephus says this leader and his men, far from dying heroically, massacred all the Greek residents of Tiberias, a city on the Sea of Galilee. Mr. Eisenman's (innocent, presumably) dedication of his book to such a person is consistent with his irresponsible misrepresentation of the important and interesting history of the Jews and Christians of antiquity. They and we deserve better.

Anthony J. Saldarini is a professor of early Judaism and Christianity at Boston College. He is one of the four authors of the Cambridge Bible Companion.

The Permanently Poor

Getting a job, two very different books agree, is a slow way out of poverty, and perhaps no way at all
By David Zucchino.
366 pp. New York:
Scribner. $25.

How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work.
By Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein.
305 pp. New York:
Russell Sage Foundation.
Cloth, $42.50. Paper, $19.95.


n ''The Glory of Byzantium,'' a spectacular exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, an unforgettable icon depicts a procession of struggling souls trying to climb a ladder to heaven but always in danger of falling off into the clutches of gleeful demons. That image haunted me throughout David Zucchino's meticulous chronicle of the perilous lives of Odessa Williams, her eight adult children and numerous grandchildren. Mrs. Williams, 56, is one of two welfare mothers whose experiences are recorded in ''Myth of the Welfare Queen.'' Mr. Zucchino, the foreign editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from South Africa, approached his domestic assignment among the poor of North Philadelphia in the spirit of a correspondent who recognized that he was basically a stranger to an alienated population within his own country.

''Making Ends Meet,'' which compares the survival strategies of welfare mothers with those of the ''working poor,'' provides an equally disturbing statistical portrait of the kind of women whose individual lives are explored by Mr. Zucchino. The economic analysis, prepared for the Russell Sage Foundation by Kathryn Edin, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University, and Laura Lein, a researcher in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas, Austin, is based on interviews with 379 mothers who receive welfare or work at low-wage jobs.

The message of both books is unequivocal: the porous barrier between welfare and work bears little resemblance to the middle-class image of a job -- any job -- as the first rung on a ladder leading out of poverty. Unfortunately, Mr. Zucchino dilutes the point by alternating between the Williams family and Cheri Honkala, a savvy welfare rights advocate known for such enterprises as setting up a tent encampment for the homeless on the grounds of the Liberty Bell. Ms. Honkala, 32, who has only one child and is off welfare by the end of the book (she makes several hundred dollars a night as a topless dancer), is clearly atypical -- in her choices and their availability.

Mrs. Williams, born in rural Georgia into a world of few choices, was chopping cotton and pulling string beans in the fields at age 5. She became one of millions of blacks who left the South in the 1950's at precisely the point when Northern cities began their long economic decline. When the Marriott Corporation announced recently that it would hire 550 workers for a new hotel, 10,000 applicants lined up in freezing weather. Implicit in Mr. Zucchino's account is the question of how the end of ''welfare as we know it'' can provide work for the 9,450 who couldn't be hired.

The Russell Sage Foundation researchers found that mothers with paying jobs spent twice as much a month as welfare mothers on expenses like day care and transportation and on formerly subsidized housing and medical costs. Nevertheless, many women continued to shift back and forth between welfare and work, hoping against hope to find a job leading to a career ladder rather than a wall.

Odessa Williams's 39-year-old daughter Joyce had worked for 10 years as a nurse's aide before she injured her back lifting a patient and turned to welfare. Then she enrolled in a medical data-processing training program. While she was in class, a son and a nephew began playing with matches, set fire to a mattress and seriously damaged her house. Joyce's 19-year-old daughter Iesha (already the mother of three) had fallen asleep in front of the television set while she was supposed to be watching the children. Joyce did manage to graduate from the training program, but the computerized medical job never materialized. After finding another job that paid $7.50 an hour -- but left her poorer after paying for transportation -- she went back on welfare.

The absence of rational calculation, regarding everything from fire safety to birth control, is the hallmark of lives described by Mr. Zucchino as being ''utterly dominated by subsistence concerns.'' Yet new welfare restrictions -- especially the denial of benefits for children born while a mother is already receiving public aid -- are based on the assumption that poor women will make the rational decision that further childbearing is not in their best interest.

Odessa Williams receives approximately $1,382 a month, including welfare and Social Security disability, for her family of five (she has assumed responsibility for the four children of her crack-addicted daughter Brenda). She acquires basic household goods by methodically scrounging through trash. Recently she began preparing for Christmas by assuming the $58-a-month payments for a ''Hooked on Phonics'' set of audiotapes and books. And every month, she puts aside more money for other children's gifts. It is easy to see why Mr. Zucchino grew so fond of this devoted matriarch. Mrs. Williams desperately wants her grandchildren to learn, but her own education is too deficient for her to understand that visits to a public library might be just as effective as an expensive set of gimmicks promoted on television.

What is the point of yet another investigation into the lives of people whose problems sound so complex as to be irremediable? Leon Dash of The Washington Post, whose splendid 1996 book ''Rosa Lee'' chronicled the experience of a welfare family far more disordered than the Williamses, has argued that ''we must agree on what the facts are, regardless of our political viewpoints, before we can offer those trapped in poverty a way out.'' ''Myth of the Welfare Queen'' and ''Making Ends Meet'' raise the disturbing further question of whether the bottom of the ladder can even be seen, much less reached, from the deepest part of the abyss.

Susan Jacoby, a freelance writer, is working on a four-generation history of her family.
Ground Zero

If you want to study racial relations in the South, look at the University of Mississippi
The Band
Played Dixie
Race and the Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss.
By Nadine Cohodas.
Illustrated. 309 pp. New York:
The Free Press. $26.


or many whites in the state, the University of Mississippi isn't so much a school as a kind of secular temple. Its traditional mission, as Nadine Cohodas suggests, has had less to do with imparting Shakespeare than with passing on the culture of white Mississippi. So change at this beguiling oak-shaded campus has always been a high-stakes matter for the people who run the state. They threw everything into keeping out a black man in September 1962 and, as a result, ''Ole Miss'' is still living with those fall days -- the 16,000 Federal troops, the mob of rock- and bottle-throwing students, the tear gas, the shootings.

James Meredith's forced admission was a milestone in upending the old order in America's most segregated state, a kind of race relations ground zero. Afterward, things couldn't have got any worse, so the slightest improvements were thrown into relief, making Ole Miss a distinctive laboratory for examining social change. Something like that thought evidently inspired Ms. Cohodas, the author of a biography of Strom Thurmond. The result is ''The Band Played Dixie,'' a lucid, concise chronicle of one American institution's laborious racial passage.

On Jan. 10, 1963, a little more than three months after the riot, a mob of 400 white students converged outside the cafeteria where Mr. Meredith was eating and shouted, ''Go home, you nigger.'' That episode illustrates a main lesson of the Ole Miss experience: even when things look really bad, they are not necessarily going to get much better in a hurry. Back then, the minimal gesture of publicly eating with a black student would bring down a rain of abuse on the offending white. Few risked it. Yet by 1966, 30 blacks would register with little difficulty, by 1970 a black studies program would be under way and by 1975 the school would elect a black football player to one of the principal campus leadership positions (called, with predictable irony, ''Colonel Rebel''). The changes came slowly, but today's atmosphere of racial quiescence is light-years from the vicious intolerance immediately after Mr. Meredith's breakthrough.

A kind of unstated subtheme of Ms. Cohodas's valuable book is that change at Ole Miss was neither inevitable nor irrevocable. Since the school's inception, there has always been a beast lurking in its bucolic setting, ready to devour forward movement. The beast, which last appeared eight years ago, is the white student mob. Abetted by its usually craven ringmaster, the Ole Miss administration, it makes for a depressing study in aggressive groupthink.

There was the time in 1950 when 200 students marched to the dormitory of the editor of the campus newspaper, Albin Krebs (later a reporter for The New York Times), after he published an editorial supporting integration. There was Dixie Week four years later, a campus entertainment featuring a slave auction and a special guest appearance by the Ku Klux Klan -- this in the year of Brown v. Board of Education. There was the anarchy surrounding James Meredith.

Fast-forward 20 years and the echoes are haunting. In 1983, a thousand students rallied in support of the rebel flag. In 1988, the building that was to house the first black fraternity on Fraternity Row burned to the ground, almost certainly torched. The next year, fraternity members scrawled ''K.K.K.'' and ''I hate niggers'' on the bare chests of two white undergraduates and dropped them off at a nearby black college. Strong reactions from students and administrators after these last episodes indicate how much Ole Miss has changed. Yet it remains as unintegrated as any campus in the country -- maybe more so, what with Mississippi's ''seg academies'' steadily feeding white students into the school's segregated fraternities.

Perhaps Ms. Cohodas is wise not to draw too many conclusions from this melancholy fact. After all, what she calls ''the push-pull dynamic of racial change,'' vividly illustrated by the story she tells so well here, is still very much in play.

Adam Nossiter, who reports for The Times from New Orleans, is the author of ''Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers.''
Hello to All That

'Like the universe,' the author writes in his tour guide to everything, 'cosmology is expanding.
A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report.
By Timothy Ferris.
393 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $25.


t one time cosmologists, like ancient anchorites on their pillars, lived on the fringes of science, half admired for the exotic nature of their calling and half scorned for being so disconnected from the real world. Equipped with an esoteric theory (Einstein's general relativity) and a single observational datum (the universe seemed to be exploding), they sat on their towers and spun elaborate scenarios of times past and future: Would the universe go on forever, perhaps renewing itself with new hydrogen atoms created in the interstices of space as space itself expanded? Would it expand to nothingness? Or would it end in an infernal big crunch?

What a different level of credibility surrounds cosmologists now! Armed with new astronomical data and joined by the high priests of particle physics, their new descriptions of the large-scale structure of the universe command attention both from the scientific elite and from the public at large. ''Like the universe, cosmology is expanding,'' Timothy Ferris writes near the start of his comprehensive report ''The Whole Shebang.'' A skilled and experienced popular writer, Mr. Ferris serves as one of the best guides for the curious reader. But the initiation requires careful attention, and despite his felicitous style the trail occasionally rises steeply uphill.

The first dozen pages lead up to Big Bang cosmology, the theory of the birth of our universe; the next dozen introduce us to state-of-the-art concepts like gravitational lensing, the Tully-Fisher method and the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect -- all connected with the cosmological distance ladder, the steps that lead to an ever-greater distance scale. All this is leavened with tales of amateurs helping discover supernovas in distant galaxies, implying that, despite the jargon, the quest to find the size of the universe is not all that incomprehensible. At the book's end we learn that Mr. Ferris, an emeritus professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, spends moonless nights with his own telescope, searching for supernovas.

''How can anyone learn anything new who does not find it a shock?'' The question, from the physicist John Wheeler, typifies the pithy and challenging slogans with which Mr. Ferris opens chapters, in this case one on the shape of space. The shock is not the mind-boggling fact that space is curved, or even that in the presence of sufficiently dense matter space can curl around itself so intensely that it becomes a cocoon cut off from the rest of the universe, a black hole. Is it shocking that there is a place from which light cannot escape? No, the trauma lies in Stephen Hawking's audacious conjecture that matter can, after all, leak out of a black hole. Why? Because of the quantum nature of the universe, in which the positions of particles are subject to enough uncertainty that sometimes they can turn up on the other side of the black-hole boundary. The shock is palpable as Mr. Ferris's arresting account picks up momentum.

Matter is energy, Einstein said, and William Blake had already opined that energy is intense delight. Mr. Ferris remarks, in Blake's words, that we really can see ''a world in a grain of sand'' -- after all, ''sand is largely silicon,'' and silicon burning in giant stars is a prototype for the evolution of the elements. Well, not quite: sand is mostly oxygen, but why spoil a good poetic connection? That, however, is the end of silicon in this account. Oxygen gets a little more consideration, though not until there is mention of design in the cosmos -- in the last chapter, ''Contrarian Theological Afterword,'' to which I shall return.

Mr. Ferris fares better in describing how matter can aptly be called frozen energy. As the unimaginably hot Big Bang cools down, hydrogen and helium freeze out of the photon broth within the first three minutes. Mr. Ferris populates his report on the origin of the elements with colorful characters like the physicist George Gamow, who remarked, ''The elements were cooked in less time than it takes to cook a dish of duck and roast potatoes.'' That was too seductive to leave out, but it is dead wrong. As Mr. Ferris correctly writes a few pages earlier, Gamow's work on the early universe incorporated a big right idea and a big wrong one. The wrong idea was that all the elements were forged in that initial explosion. Mr. Ferris sketches out the correct scenario: the heavier elements are formed from the initial hydrogen and helium in a long, slow cooking process that begins deep within giant stars. He is an astonishingly knowledgeable journalist, and glitches are relatively rare -- like the inclusion of this quotation, or his assertion that Gustav Kirchhoff in the mid-19th century (rather than Noah; remember the origin of the rainbow?) was the first to obtain a solar spectrum.

The story moves swiftly on, through ''The Dark Matter Rap'' to the large-scale structure of the universe, and to the evolution of quasars, galaxies and stars. And then a brief chapter on the evolution of the cosmos, with two moving quotations from Charles Darwin.

Now, at a cadence, the book turns from astronomers to quantum physicists. ''The Hunting of the Snark,'' by Lewis Carroll, introduces symmetry, broken symmetry, renormalization and string theory:

You boil it in sawdust: you salt it in glue:

You condense it with locusts and tape:

Still keeping one principal object in view --

To preserve its symmetrical shape.

The inflationary development of the universe follows, with a good dose of the beguiling theory of chaotic inflation proposed by the cosmologist Andrei Linde. In this model our universe is only one of many that bubbled up out of the original quantum vacuum. ''The classical Big Bang theory is dead,'' Mr. Linde says. But because the other parts of this multiverse are forever inaccessible to us, their existence must be taken on faith, so his opinion is far from universally accepted. But Mr. Ferris is sufficiently intrigued by the notion to subtitle his book ''A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report.''

Cosmology is expanding not only because of exciting new ideas but because of a flow of new data, some of it from the Hubble Space Telescope. Curiously, Mr. Ferris has rather little to say about the grand question of how the universe will end or the fervid battle over its age. Depending on the way the distance scale is read, the universe has been expanding for 10 or 15 billion years (or values scattered around this range). But the younger figure falls short of the age of the globular star clusters, and no one wants a universe younger than its parts. As for possible endings, instead of addressing the cosmological Armageddon, our guide brings us to quantum weirdness and the bewildering question of how a measurement of a particle in one place can instantly affect the state of a particle on the opposite side of the galaxy; ''It is as if the quantum world had never heard of space,'' he writes. That is hardly part of cosmology, but this is a breathtakingly wide canvas, and for a brief description of some of the major conundrums of the quantum universe, Mr. Ferris is admirably lucid.

Finally, because God can scarcely be left out of the whole shebang, he turns to his theological afterword. Why is it contrarian? Admirers of the very moving scene in the Beauvais Cathedral in his PBS television special ''The Creation of the Universe'' will here miss the theme that science owes a lot to religion, especially the idea that the universe really is a universe; the notion of a single system ruled by a single set of laws came to Western science from Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. ''The deity has been implicated in cosmology since the dawn of human history,'' he writes. But what can science tell us about God? Nothing, is his contrarian conclusion: ''In a creative universe God would betray no trace of his presence, since to do so would rob the creative forces of their independence. . . . All who genuinely seek to learn . . . are united in not having a faith but faith itself. . . . For God's hand may be a human hand, if you reach out in loving kindness, and God's voice your voice, if you but speak the truth.'' Prophets' voices echo in this provocative finale, and this, rather than science, may indeed be the way God speaks to humankind.

Owen Gingerich is a historian of astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
'You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours'

Two books explore why humans are altruistic and why the shy but sexy bonobos are generous and fair
Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation.
By Matt Ridley.
295 pp. New York:
Viking. $24.95.

The Forgotten Ape.
By Frans de Waal.
Photographs by Frans Lanting.
213 pp. Berkeley:
University of California Press. $39.95.


volution by natural selection is a nasty business. Out there in the wild, animals of all kinds contend fiercely for scarce resources, and the meek leave no descendants to inherit their uncompetitive genes. But how then have we humans ended up so nice? True, we are not all saints, but it is a rare member of the species Homo sapiens who does not feel some impulse to lend a hand to those in need.

One ready answer would be that we are not slaves to our genes. We may indeed be products of biological evolution, separated from our chimpanzee cousins by a mere five million years of natural selection. But we are also creatures of culture, in whom civilization has instilled many characteristics that have nothing to do with animal competition. According to this way of thought, our niceness is just one of the many traits we get from our cultural nurture rather than our biological nature, along with literacy, litigiousness and a liking for rock 'n' roll.

However, the desire to explain human behavior in terms of evolution cannot be so quickly dismissed. The recent history of this idea testifies to its hardiness. Thirty years ago we had the ''naked apes'' and ''territorial imperatives'' of Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey. Then there was E. O. Wilson and ''sociobiology.'' The last few years have seen the emergence of an influential school of ''evolutionary psychology.'' Whenever the biological approach seems about to collapse under the weight of criticism, it rises again with new strength, like a stubborn boxer whose efforts are only encouraged by each knockdown.

Modern advocates of the evolutionary approach have learned to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. They no longer seek a direct biological meaning for every human foible, in the way that Desmond Morris would explain home decoration, say, as akin to a wolf marking its lair with its scent. Instead, contemporary ''evolutionary psychologists'' focus on the underlying mental mechanisms we have inherited from our evolutionary past. They accept that these mechanisms give rise to different patterns of behavior in different cultures. But at the same time, they argue, our inherited mentality places limits on what we can and cannot do. Any child can learn languages better than the best computer, but no human can beat a $2 calculator at multiplication. The obvious implication is that evolution has given us a mechanism for language, but none for mental arithmetic. More generally, our biological heritage means that some things come easily to humans, and others are very difficult.

Among the things that come easily to humans is niceness. Children don't have to be taught about good behavior. They catch on to concepts like sharing and playing fair almost before they can speak. But this brings us back to our original puzzle. How could humans possibly have evolved into such altruistic beings? If nice guys always finished last when our ancestors were scrabbling around for food on the African savanna, why does morality come so naturally to us now?

This is the question Matt Ridley aims to answer in ''The Origins of Virtue.'' Or, rather, he aims to provide a battery of answers. The evolution of altruism has been a topic of intense research for more than 20 years. While the biologically minded may still be a minority among social scientists, there are now enough of them to have produced a plethora of competing theories. Mr. Ridley is a distinguished British science journalist who proves an excellent guide to the current debate. Sometimes his eagerness to cover every angle means that different views are not always clearly distinguished, but he is never dull, and he illustrates the intricate logic of natural selection with many parables from ethology, anthropology and game theory.

Perhaps you are wondering why fancy logic is needed to explain altruism. Isn't the answer obvious? Wouldn't cooperative bands among our hunter-gatherer ancestors have fared better than individualists who tried to scratch out a living on their own? But this idea faces a telling objection. Although cooperation is undoubtedly beneficial, it is also evolutionarily unstable. It is open to exploitation by nasty mutants. Once an individual with selfish instincts is born into a hunter-gatherer band, it will take the benefit of any communal food but avoid the risk of catching it. So selfish individuals will leave more descendants, and soon enough the cooperative bands won't be cooperative anymore.

Still, given that we aren't all nasty nowadays, something must have prevented this outcome. The most popular theory is reciprocal altruism, more familiarly known as ''You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.'' Suppose that some of our ancestors evolved an instinct to share food only with those who share with them, or, for that matter, to scratch fleas off the backs of only those who scratch theirs. Then they would get the benefits of cooperation but would be immune to exploitation, because they'd simply stop helping those who didn't reciprocate. Mr. Ridley explains how a widely disseminated series of computer models has convinced most theorists that this kind of logrolling instinct can well be favored by natural selection.

However, it seems unlikely that this is the whole story about human niceness. Many humans give to charity without any prospect of a payback. To explain this, Mr. Ridley considers a converse question: Why are humans often so vengeful? What's the point of waging vendettas when they only bring trouble in their train? Well, maybe actually waging vendettas is a bad idea, but to be known for your vindictiveness can be a great advantage, for then people will take care not to cross you. And maybe the surest way of acquiring a reputation for vindictiveness is actually to be vindictive. So perhaps vengeful dispositions evolved not because it is advantageous to be vengeful, but because it is advantageous to be thought so. Similarly with generosity. Even if openhanded generosity is in itself costly, perhaps it is the best way to acquire a reputation for generosity, which will then pay off because it advertises you as someone who can be trusted in a deal.

In his final chapter Mr. Ridley draws some political conclusions from his biological analysis. The state should keep out of human affairs and leave smaller communities of property owners to look after themselves. Our natural inclinations toward trust and mutual aid will insure fairness within communities, but attempts by governments to make us go beyond these inclinations will only breed resistance. As Mr. Ridley puts it, ''We are not so nasty that we need to be tamed by intrusive government, nor so nice that too much government does not bring out the worst in us.''

There is plenty of room, however, to accept Mr. Ridley's style of evolutionary theorizing without embracing his political philosophy. One difficulty with his argument is illustrated by the bonobos, the so-called pygmy chimpanzees that live south of the Congo River. The recent history of this species shows that we can't simply jump from claims about our evolutionary history to conclusions about our current character. The bonobos probably separated from the other chimpanzees only about 1.5 million years ago. Yet their character and social organization are now strikingly different.

The bonobos are best known as the sexy chimpanzees. Their most striking idiosyncrasy is their readiness to use sex as a social lubricant. Any tension within a bonobo group is normally resolved by a quick orgy, in which they all have sex with one another, in all positions and combinations. Yet, as Frans de Waal explains in the elegant photo-essay ''Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape,'' this is just one way in which they diverge markedly from the other chimpanzees.

Mr. de Waal's book is designed more for the coffee table than the research library. The text is spiced with interviews with prominent bonobo experts and illustrated with Frans Lanting's spectacular photographs of bonobos in the wild. But at the same time it does an excellent job of describing what is now known about these elusive primates. Mr. de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory University and Research Professor at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, is himself a distinguished primatologist, and he explains in detail how a social gulf has arisen between bonobos and their chimpanzee cousins. Where chimpanzee bands are dominated by males and often tainted by infanticide, the bonobos conform far more closely to the model of the cuddly chimp, being female-centered, socially egalitarian and free from any serious violence.

The moral for Matt Ridley's argument is obvious. If such radical changes in chimpanzee psychology can arise within 1.5 million years, there might well be a similar gap between our hunter-gatherer past and modern human psychology. Any psychological traits produced by our evolution on the savanna a few million years ago could easily have been washed out again in the intervening ages.

Apart from this point, there is in any case another, more fundamental objection to Mr. Ridley's political conclusions. He seems to assume that the biologically natural way is necessarily the best way. But this is a mistake. It is arguable that war and philandering are in some sense biologically natural, but this does not make them right. Nor does it make them inevitable. Evolutionary psychologists like Mr. Ridley tend to forget that evolution has blessed humans with one special biological ability.

Unlike most other animals, we aren't just bags of reflexes; we are able to reflect on our circumstances and to figure out the best thing to do. Maybe the right course of action doesn't always come easily, but often we can manage it. When we need to do multiplication, for example, we can make the effort or, better, build a calculator. For all the biological sophistication of Mr. Ridley's ideas, they don't show that we shouldn't make an effort in the political realm too, and build systems of government that can channel our basic moral reflexes in more sophisticated directions.

David Papineau, a professor of philosophy at King's College, London, is the editor of ''The Philosophy of Science.''
Nowhere to Hide

How Bosnian Serbs executed 7,000 Muslims under the eyes of the U.N. and the world
The Betrayal and Fall
of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II.
By David Rohde.
Maps. 440 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.


ew people will enjoy this book. It is a tale of ignominy, betrayal and slaughter. It contains no heroes, only victims, butchers and a large cast of characters who, through sins of either commission or omission, bear some of the blame for the events it describes. Within this group, David Rohde evidently believes, are you and I. He may be right.

''Endgame'' is an account of the capture of the small Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995 and the subsequent killing by the conquering Serbs of around 7,000 of its people. The massacre gnaws at the Western conscience not just because of its coldbloodedness and size, but because in April 1993 Srebrenica had become the first place in the world to be declared a ''safe area'' by the United Nations. Indeed, in March of that year Gen. Philippe Morillon, the United Nations commander in Bosnia at the time, had gone to Srebrenica and told its people: ''You are now under the protection of the United Nations. . . . I will never abandon you.''

The task of protection, Mr. Rohde explains, actually fell, in due course, to 750 lightly armed Dutchmen. Although some acquitted themselves honorably in this unenviable role -- and one lost his life to a Muslim hand grenade -- the Dutch involvement as a whole was inglorious. Whether misjudging the nature of the Serb attack or making appeals for help only to have them ignored, the Dutch failed in their mission.

They ceded the southern half of the enclave they were meant to be defending without firing a shot. Some of the Dutch troops were taken hostage. Others were humiliatingly obliged to acquiesce as the Serbs arrested and led away the people in their charge. One Dutch lieutenant agreed to help the would-be murderers control their captives. Others were ordered to join the Serbs in the sport of ''Muslim hunting'': ''You shoot a Muslim if you see them,'' they were told. On one occasion, though they had found nine bodies and witnessed at least one execution, the Dutch still forced Muslim men to leave the United Nations base.

Perhaps understandably, the peacekeepers chose to volunteer very little of this after the event. For its part, the Dutch Defense Ministry ''accidentally'' destroyed the film of the nine bodies taken by one of its peacekeepers, strengthening speculation that it wanted to cover up the inadequacy of the Netherlands' collective role in the affair.

Yet, as Mr. Rohde tells us, the people of Srebrenica were not let down by the Dutch alone. All along the United Nations chain of command lurked men with feet of clay, hearts of stone or heads of wood. Notable among them were Yasushi Akashi, the civilian head of the United Nations mission in the former Yugoslavia, who was terrified of challenging the Serbs lest it compromise the United Nations' impartiality, and Lieut. Gen. Bernard Janvier, his military counterpart, who repeatedly blocked the Dutch peacekeepers' calls for NATO air strikes. When those strikes were eventually made, they proved highly effective, accurately hitting military targets with little collateral damage and dramatically cowing the Serbs. Arguably, however, air strikes would never have been needed had the United Nations' leading members been ready to send more troops in the first place. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the United Nations Secretary General, had asked for 34,000 peacekeepers to protect Srebrenica and the five other ''safe areas.'' In the event, he got 7,600.

Many outsiders, especially in the United States, have seen the war in Bosnia as a straightforward example of Serb aggression against innocent Muslims. The Serbs were certainly aggressive, even genocidal, and the Muslims were certainly their main victims. But as this book makes clear, the Srebrenica massacres were far from straightforward, and the part played by the Bosnian Muslims' leaders was even more shameful than that of their United Nations ''protectors.''

In their defense, it should be said that the Muslims were demoralized and poorly armed; indeed, in Srebrenica and the other ''safe areas'' they had in theory (though not in practice) been completely disarmed by the United Nations. Yet that does not fully explain why they surrendered Srebrenica with scarcely any resistance. Their local military commander, Naser Oric, a 29-year-old with apparently inspirational powers of leadership, played no part in the defense or evacuation of the town. He was nowhere to be seen. In the preceding years, however, he had been horribly evident, leading raids that were notorious for their brutality. All told, his men had killed nearly 3,000 Serbs in villages around Srebrenica, conspicuously choosing the Serbs' Orthodox holidays on which to cut off heads or burn civilians in their homes.

His colleagues behaved little better. Srebrenica's leaders emerge from these pages richly endowed with human frailties: hoarding food, black marketeering and, it seems, embezzling German marks sent by foreign charities for Muslim orphans. When danger threatened, they tried to inspire the townsfolk with promises of cash for any who would stay and fight, but the single piece of artillery they had concealed from the United Nations was never fired (the main attack involved only four Serb tanks and a few hundred infantry). Hardly the spirit of Thermopylae.

When the Muslims decided to flee, Mr. Rohde says, it was the better-armed local leaders who placed themselves at the head of a five-mile column, leaving the unarmed stragglers to be hunted down and killed on their seven-day trudge to Tuzla. Only some 3,500 of the 10,000 to 15,000 who set out completed the 40-mile journey. Virtually no help came from the Muslims' Second Corps in Tuzla.

The Bosnian authorities in Sarajevo appear to have cared little about Srebrenica. Before it fell, they forbade anyone to leave, though they themselves stayed resolutely away: according to Mr. Rohde, no senior Government official visited the town in three years. Srebrenica was supposedly demilitarized, but that did not stop those in charge in Sarajevo from ordering raids out of there, including a large one in June 1995 that they must have known would bring retaliation. It did. The massacres followed within three weeks.

And then there are the Serbs, and above all their leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. General Mladic plainly masterminded the killing: the separation of the men from the women, the busing of the refugees, then the deaths by machine gun or hand grenade. Many Muslims were killed in the humdrum surroundings of a gymnasium, a warehouse or a soccer stadium. Most were hunted down in the fields and hills on the way to Tuzla. Whatever the failings of the other actors in this awful story, nothing compares with the enormities of the Serbs.

Mr. Rohde, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Srebrenica for The Christian Science Monitor and who is currently a metropolitan reporter for The New York Times, tells the tale of Srebrenica largely through the experiences of seven individuals: three Muslims, two Dutchmen, a Serb and a Croat. The copious use of reconstructed direct quotation and a tiresomely racy style (''The armored personnel carrier from OP Foxtrot screeched to a halt. . . . Back in Srebrenica town, Captain Groen tensed'') give large parts of the book the character of an adventure story, which seems singularly inappropriate to its grisly theme. The cutting from character to character also adds to the confusion of a necessarily complicated tale: at times the fog of war descends upon the page, or at least upon any reader not intimately familiar with the war in Bosnia. But these criticisms apart, ''Endgame'' is a remarkable account, based on courageous research and admirably unbiased analysis.

In apportioning blame, Mr. Rohde is unsparing, especially about the United Nations' failure to use air power earlier against the Serbs. It is easy to forget, however, the extent to which the United Nations and NATO were entering new territory in this war, literally and metaphorically. Strict neutrality had hitherto marked traditional United Nations peacekeeping operations. NATO was a club organized for collective defense, not for attack against countries that threatened none of its members. Some of those members put their soldiers' lives at considerable risk: peacekeepers were repeatedly taken hostage, and over four years 210 were killed. It was important to win Russian support for the United Nations' actions, and even more important to prevent the war from spreading beyond the borders of what had been Yugoslavia. These objectives at least were achieved.

Still, it is hard to disagree with Mr. Rohde when he says that ''the international community encouraged, aided and emboldened the executioners'' in Srebrenica. If the ''international community'' means anything, and maybe it doesn't, it means you and me.

John Grimond is the foreign editor of The Economist.
That Old-Time Religion

A history of evangelical faith in the South
The Beginnings of the Bible Belt.
By Christine Leigh Heyrman.
336 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $27.50.


he religious history of the American South is fascinating scholarly terrain. Anyone who doubts this should read Christine Leigh Heyrman's ''Southern Cross,'' an extraordinarily rich exploration of the first hundred years of evangelical faith in the South. Her book transports us back to what the author accurately describes as ''a world marooned from living memory'' -- the decades from the 1740's to the 1830's when the Baptist and Methodist churches were taking shape in the region. As we enter this world of mud-splattered itinerant preachers on their scrawny horses moving across the Southern landscape, we are in for more then a few surprises.

''There was . . . nothing inevitable about the triumph of evangelicalism in the South,'' Ms. Heyrman observes. Young Baptist and Methodist preachers seeking to win Southern converts in the 18th century faced a formidable phalanx of opposition, and for good reason. Their fiery message of salvation initially carried with it a radical challenge to both white supremacy and male dominance in the region, Ms. Heyrman, who teaches history at the University of Delaware, points out. Not until the evangelicals learned to soften their tone and modify their theology -- a process that began in earnest in the first decades of the 19th century -- did their ''language of Canaan'' sweep across Dixie.

In their quest for ''the rebirth of the fallen soul'' and ''the regeneration of the corrupt heart,'' the early Baptist and Methodist ministers took aim at a wide variety of sins and sinners. ''Worldlings'' who sought happiness in hedonistic pleasures like dancing, drinking and gambling were one target. So too were the humanists (like Thomas Jefferson -- a ''demon'' in evangelical eyes) who extolled the rational virtues of the Enlightenment. And slaveholders were targets as well. Blacks were God's children too, the insurgent churches believed, with souls worth saving. Methodist and many Baptist clergy opposed human bondage and at first called on believers to manumit their slaves.

The evangelicals also honored women in ways that white Southern men found disturbing. The early preachers gave consistent credit to ''the spiritual capacities of white women'' and affirmed the right of women, both black and white, to bear witness to their faith in public. ''Before the appearance of evangelicals in the South,'' Ms. Heyrman notes, ''there had been no tradition of according women any kind of spiritual authority,'' with the lone exception of ''the increasingly despised and dwindling Quakers.'' As a consequence, Baptist and Methodist churches became ''the only settings in the South in which white men were required to compete for standing not only with white women but also with African-Americans.''

Not surprisingly, adult white male converts were relatively few and far between in the 18th-century South, a situation evangelical leaders found increasingly disturbing as the turn of the century approached. In Ms. Heyrman's words, the church fathers came to believe that they ''could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children and slaves.''

So the leadership began to trim. First, they muted their opposition to slavery and slaveholding. No more ''ringing denunciations of slavery . . . issued from the mouths of . . . Baptist and Methodist preachers,'' as had been the case in the early days. By 1784, Methodists had formally abandoned their efforts to restrict slaveholders from membership, and Baptists increasingly saw nothing incompatible in being a Christian and being a slaveowner. Worship services became racially segregated affairs, and the ministries of black preachers were largely restricted to slave communities across the South.

Women were eventually put in their place as well. Evangelical clergymen -- usually young, frequently itinerant and often unmarried in the 18th century -- became older, more settled and more married in the 19th. And this emerging church leadership began to preach a different gospel regarding women. They drew an ''identity between female piety and domesticity'' and insisted ''that a woman's way to eternal bliss lay in devotion to her family.'' Patriarchal control of the household was affirmed, and ''preachers now took pains to assure both themselves and the readers of their memoirs that they brooked no nonsense'' from women, Ms. Heyrman writes.

At the same time, a muscular Christianity took hold in Southern evangelical churches in the first half of the 19th century. The language of warfare and martial imagery became commonplace in religious settings. The ''model man of God,'' Ms. Heyrman writes, was transformed from the earlier image of the ''willing martyr'' (who might, in fact, even be drawn from the ranks of ''puny, sickly, bookish sissies'' in the 18th-century South) into something quite different -- the man of God as ''a formidable fighter.'' A new class of ''warrior preachers'' came to dominate the Southern evangelical scene, with profound implications for a section increasingly given to calculating the value of the Union as the 19th century wore on.

Piecing this fascinating tale together was not an easy task. To recover her story, Ms. Heyrman plowed through sources that would deter all but the most intrepid of historians: the manuscript diaries and journals kept by Baptist and Methodist clergy as they went about their daily tasks in the 18th- and 19th-century South. ''What they record is utterly mundane and completely absorbing,'' she writes. ''The voices of people silenced by obscurity in a world that has slipped far away from the present echo in every entry.''

Ms. Heyrman has given us a great deal to think about in this wonderfully told and beautifully written story. In the end, we are left to ponder what the South, and indeed the United States, might look like today if those 18th-century evangelical firebrands with their message of freedom for slaves and recognition for women had managed to carry the day.

Charles B. Dew teaches Southern history at Williams College, where he is the director of the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences. His most recent book is ''Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge.''
Poster Boy for the Revolution

Che Guevara had extraordinary charisma as well as a frightening cruel streak
A Revolutionary Life.
By Jon Lee Anderson.
Illustrated. 814 pp. New York:
Grove Press. $35.


n a revealing scene midway through ''Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,'' Jon Lee Anderson's superb biography, Enrique Oltuski, a young Havana-born son of Polish emigrants and an important anti-Communist ally of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro's, goes into the Escambray mountains, where Che had his headquarters during the latter phases of the struggle against the Batista regime. Che is not in camp when Mr. Oltuski and other members of his party arrive, but as a courtesy, one of Che's young bodyguards offers Mr. Oltuski some goat meat, which he notices is green with rot. He takes a bite and then has to run outside to spit it out. When Che returns after midnight, Mr. Oltuski watches with ''horrified fascination'' as Che picks up the goat meat with dirty fingers and eats with apparent relish. The meeting doesn't go well -- Che harangues the urban revolutionaries for what he perceives to be various failings -- but on the way back to Havana, one of Mr. Oltuski's colleagues asks him what he thought of Che. ''In spite of everything,'' Mr. Oltuski replies, ''one can't help admiring him. He knows what he wants better than we do. And he lives entirely for it.''

Mr. Anderson, a freelance journalist and the author of an earlier book on guerrillas, spent five years on this volume -- the first major biography of Che -- and in it he portrays Che as a complex, volatile, ultimately tragic figure who was critical to insuring the victory of the Cuban revolution yet unable to live with the results. This book brings to light a rich collection of diaries and letters -- many previously unexamined -- and is especially interesting for being written from a largely Cuban perspective. Nearly three of Mr. Anderson's five years were spent in Havana, where he was able to gain access to important Cuban archives as well as to Che's famously reclusive widow, Aleida. He also conducted interviews throughout Europe and South America and on three occasions traveled to Russia, where he talked to figures who were crucial in establishing the Kremlin's policies toward Cuba and the United States.

From the Russian interviews we learn that the Soviets did not at first take the Cuban revolution seriously, since a rural-based guerrilla-led insurrection was simply not in their playbook. We also learn that they had quite different outlooks on Che and on Fidel. To the Soviets, Fidel was a liberal bourgeois democrat. Che was known to be a Communist -- he was often referred to as ''the Red flea in Fidel's ear'' -- but his contempt for the Cuban Communist Party was considered troublesome. Finally, Mr. Anderson relates, the Kremlin sent a top official, Nikolai Metutsov -- a jowly, large-eared, beetle-browed man -- to Cuba to get a fix on Che. The results were comic. Mr. Metutsov wound up talking all night with Che and being seduced not just by his revolutionary zeal (which reminded Mr. Metutsov of the early Bolsheviks) but also by his romantic pallor, his poet's eyes and his flowing chestnut hair. By morning, Mr. Metutsov told Mr. Anderson, ''I confessed my love for him because he was a very attractive young man. . . . I felt attracted to him, do you understand? . . . He had very beautiful eyes. Magnificent eyes, so deep, so generous, so honest.''

For all Mr. Anderson's Soviet-bloc access, his portrait of Che is refreshingly nonpartisan. Ernesto Guevara grew up in a family of eccentric and impecunious Argentine aristocrats (an uncle was Ambassador to Cuba while Che was in the mountains), and Mr. Anderson describes him as possessing an ''unusual combination of romantic passion and coldly analytical thought.'' He reports that Che was tone-deaf, didn't dance and loved nothing more than mathematical puzzles. From childhood he was crippled by asthma, and his mother once explained to the journalist Eduardo Galeano that Che ''had always lived trying to prove to himself that he could do everything he couldn't do.'' Mr. Galeano wound up labeling Che the Jacobin of the Cuban revolution, and Che did, in fact, have a frightening cruel streak. Not long after he and Castro established themselves in the Sierra Maestra, for example, they unmasked a traitor. The man's fate was obvious, but no one wanted to be the executioner until Che pulled out his pistol and shot him through the head. Che was a doctor and, in his diary, he noted in clinical detail the bullet's points of entry and exit. Later, after Batista was vanquished, Che was put in charge of the revolutionary firing squads. Asked by a friend how he could live with this role, he responded, ''Look, in this thing you have to kill before they kill you.''

From adolescence Che displayed a strong wanderlust, and Mr. Anderson's narrative traces his youthful travels around South America to Guatemala, in 1954, where he lived through the American-directed coup against the elected Government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Until he reached Guatemala, Che had been anti-American but also anti-Communist. Guatemala made him a Communist, and Mr. Anderson argues that after the Cuban revolution he became the principal architect of both Cuba's turn away from the United States and its military and economic realignment with the Soviet Union. It was the start, to put it mildly, of a vexed relationship. Che quickly became disillusioned with shoddy Soviet goods and the lumpish corruptions of Soviet advisers. More and more he turned his attention to the Liberation Department, a supersecret agency hidden within Cuba's security apparatus that was designed to foment world revolution.

In the aftermath of the near disaster of the missile crisis, the Soviets made it clear that they had limited interest in Che's adventurism. Eventually, at a 1965 conference of African and Asian revolutionaries in Algiers, he exploded, publicly lambasting the Russian leaders as ''accomplices to imperialist exploitation.'' When he returned to Cuba, he resigned from all his posts and dropped out of sight. Traditionally, historians have contended that this reflected a break with Castro, who had been forced into an increasingly tight Soviet embrace. But Mr. Anderson argues convincingly that Castro was operating on multiple tracks: while publicly toeing the Soviet line, he was privately entertaining Che's argument that the only way to break Cuba's isolation was to create revolutions throughout Latin America.

As the Liberation Department stepped up its involvement with Latin America, Che, the internationalist, left for Congo, where he and several hundred black Cuban volunteers joined forces with Laurent Kabila (who is once again making news in Zaire) in a fight against Joseph Mobutu and a group of mercenaries led by the white South African Mike Hoare. It was a fiasco. While Mr. Kabila sped around the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam in a green Mercedes, his troops, along with the Cubans, festered at the front and were eventually routed.

Undeterred, Che returned to Cuba to prepare for his departure for Bolivia, which Havana had designated as host country for the impending subversion of Latin America. By this time, however, Che had become so widely hunted by the C.I.A. that his overseas travel had to be conducted in deep disguise. To prepare him for his trip to Bolivia, the Cuban secret service plucked all the hair off the top of his head; when he went to say his final farewell to his family, his own children didn't recognize him.

At the end of the Congo debacle, Che had been confronted by a loyal follower from the days in the Sierra Maestra, who reproached him for possessing an inflexible worldview, for refusing to adapt to changing realities. This certainly seems to have been the case in 1967 in Bolivia, where Che and most of his followers were quickly hunted down and killed. Local Bolivians thought that in death Che looked like Jesus, and they snipped locks of his hair. In Cuba, a million people turned out for his wake.

Mr. Anderson does a masterly job in evoking Che's complex character, in separating the man from the myth and in describing the critical role Che played in one of the darkest periods of the cold war. Ultimately, however, the strength of his book is in its wealth of detail. Not the least of the remarkable stories Mr. Anderson tells is of going to Miami to look up Felix Rodriguez, the leader of the C.I.A. team that helped chase Che down (he later worked with Oliver North in the Iran-contra affair). Mr. Rodriguez showed him his most prized possession -- Che's last, half-smoked wad of pipe tobacco, frozen inside a glass bubble in the handle of Mr. Rodriguez's favorite revolver.

Peter Canby is the author of ''The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya.''
A Good Family Man

Unlike John Gotti, Sammy Gravano harbored no delusions about his profession
More on Life in the Mafia, from The New York Times Archives
Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story
of Life in the Mafia.
By Peter Maas.
Illustrated. 308 pp. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers. $25.


ammy Gravano is the defector from the Mafia who brought John Gotti down. And ''defector,'' as Peter Maas points out in this brilliantly constructed and grimly fascinating history-cum-memoir, is the right word, not ''fink'' or ''rat'' or any of those other schoolyard imprecations that are used to keep the shallow in line. Sammy Gravano was never shallow and never disloyal. He switched sides only after his own team proved disloyal to him.

In fact, the first thing Mr. Gravano said to John Gleeson, the Federal prosecutor in the Gotti case, at that pivotal moment when he was crossing over, was, ''I want to switch governments.'' Judge Leo Glasser, who put away John Gotti for life and gave Sammy Gravano five years, wrote, ''There has never been a defendant of his stature in organized crime who has made the leap he has made from one social planet to another.''

''Underboss'' is a description of that planet he left and why he left it and what it meant, but even more it is a description of Sammy Gravano, who is summed up in the title. A loyal henchman was all Sammy Gravano ever aspired to be, the underboss, never the boss. He had absolutely no desire to be No. 1. He was No. 2, and boy, did he try harder.

Mr. Gravano is a bright, articulate, glib fellow in his own right, with a gripping story to tell and an amusingly quirky way with language (much of which can't be repeated in this review). However, he will always be the underboss, seen only in the reflected light of that shiny mobster he brought down, although Mr. Gravano was, in fact, well along in his Mafia career before he ever heard the name John Gotti, and it wasn't until late in that career that they became close. Before that, Sammy Gravano from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn thought Mr. Gotti was ''on another planet as far as I'm concerned, Ozone Park, in Queens. He's into hijacking. That's not my thing.''

Just about every other kind of criminal activity was Mr. Gravano's thing, however. He was a burglar, bank robber, car thief, extortionist, loan shark, intimidator and, finally, murderer. (Mr. Maas tells us that Mr. Gravano admitted to involvement in ''18 or 19 murders,'' that ''or'' being my favorite word in the book.) He was a significant part of the corruption in New York City's construction trade, in the teamsters and other unions, in the garment business and, of course, trash hauling. That he didn't have time for hijacking is probably explained by the fact that he was a good family man, as well as a good ''family'' man, and liked to spend his evenings at home with his wife and children.

The contrast between the flamboyant John Gotti and the workmanlike Sammy Gravano could not be more complete. Mr. Gravano sums it up with the story of the one time he was talked into accompanying Mr. Gotti late at night to the then-hot disco Regine's: ''That wasn't me, to go somewhere just to be seen. We're not actors, we're not actresses. We're gangsters and racketeers. We're not supposed to be known to the public. What happened to . . . 'We're a secret society'? What kind of secret is this?''

No kind of secret, not for John Gotti. A soaring romantic among groundling realists, Mr. Gotti loved his image and burnished it constantly. He would drive Mr. Gravano nuts talking about ''my public,'' and had his hair cut, washed and blow-dried every day. He never saw a camera he wouldn't veer toward.

The press loves a clown who loves the press, and Mr. Gotti and the news media were born for each other. He became only the second Mafioso to make the cover of Time (Al Capone, naturally, was the first), and responded by hanging a blowup of the cover in his office. If Mr. Gravano had found his face on the front of Time, he would probably have run straight to a plastic surgeon.

Those the press loves, it nicknames. John Gotti was ''the Dapper Don,'' ''the Teflon Don.'' ''He loved them terms,'' Mr. Gravano told Mr. Maas. ''If that news guy would have went to John first and told him, 'I'm gonna call you the Dapper Don,' I think John would have given him a couple of hundred thousand right on the spot. That's why all the old foxes in Cosa Nostra hated him. And a lot of the bosses. It wasn't the life.''

Reflecting on their differences, Mr. Gravano says: ''Maybe he thought he was some sort of Robin Hood with the people cheering him. Hey, what is this? All of a sudden, the Government is the bad guys, and we're really the good guys? I don't think I'm Robin Hood. I think I'm a gangster. I think I'm somebody with a very, very limited education, and I fought and kicked and punched and did the best I could to get ahead. I dealt with the reality that someday I will probably be killed or go to . . . jail, and I lived with that reality all my life. That's the life I chose. That's the road I took.''

But neither Mr. Gravano nor most of the other mobsters were really delighted with the lives they had chosen. Of the most important meeting he ever attended, among the bosses of the various New York crime families -- including Vincent (the Chin) Gigante, who was supposed to be too mentally deranged to find his way there, but somehow did -- Mr. Gravano tells us: ''One thing I'll never forget from that meeting was John telling Chin in sort of a proud way that his son, John Jr., had just been made. Instead of congratulating him, Chin said, 'Jeez, I'm sorry to hear that.' We were a little shocked by this, but Chin was right. Paul Castellano didn't want his kids in the life. None of Chin's sons were made. I myself would be dead set against it. I wanted my son to be legitimate, to have nothing to do with what I did. So here was Chin, who's supposed to be crazy, saying who in their right mind wanted their son to be made? And there was John boasting about it. Who was really crazy?''

John Gotti was crazy, but he was also crazy like a fox. He and Mr. Gravano and a third man, Frank (Frankie Loc) Locascio, were being held for trial on, among other charges, the murder of Paul Castellano, their former boss (ah, loyalty), and Mr. Gotti refused to let Mr. Gravano sever his case or have his own lawyers or build his own defense, saying they had to stick together for the good of Cosa Nostra. The gulf war was going on at this time, and they watched it on television in the detention center. ''John's rooting for Iraq to win the war, for our troops to die and this and that. I told him one day, 'Look, it could be our kids in the Army. . . . O.K., we hate the Government. But what do these kids got to do with it? I mean, like it or not, we belong to this country.' ''

He didn't know it yet, but he was on the brink of learning something about loyalty, and the lesson finally took hold when he realized Mr. Gotti was setting him up. ''The jury could look at John as the boss, the way he dresses and all, and that poor John has lost control of this Sammy the Bull, his underboss. This Sammy has run rampant and John's on tape actually complaining about it. Maybe with his personality, his charisma, with movie stars like Anthony Quinn and Mickey Rourke coming into court and waving at him, the jury would think that he's not such a bad guy and the real monster here is Sammy. So let's convict him.''

Sammy Gravano is not well educated, but he's smart and decisive, and when he makes a decision he acts, faster than you can think. Mr. Gravano, the uncharismatic workhorse who once defined the height of his ambition by saying, ''You can't be a thug forever if you want to get ahead. Somewhere along the line, you have to learn to be a racketeer as well,'' slipped out of John Gotti's trap and sailed away, and it was Mr. Gotti who went down with no chance of parole.

Sammy the Bull did his time and is out now, somewhere in America, no doubt an excellent No. 2 for somebody somewhere in the construction business. In Mr. Maas, whose previous books include ''The Valachi Papers'' and ''Serpico,'' he has found the perfect person to tell his story, to let the spotlight shine on Sammy Gravano for once. Probably half the book is in his voice. He can be funny, and incisive, and frank, and horribly cold. Mr. Maas fills in the larger picture, placing this one thug in context, showing us the landscape in which this particular Sammy runs.

The result is a terrific and, I think, important book. Not for the details of Mafia life; we've seen all that a dozen times at the movies, where Sammy was usually played by Joe Pesci. It's important because it is a morality play on the subject of loyalty. To whom are you loyal, and from whom should you be able to expect loyalty? Sammy Gravano didn't want to go to the heart of that question, but he did when he had to, and I'm glad I met him and I don't need to meet him anymore.

Donald E. Westlake's new novel, ''The Ax,'' will be published next month.