There are times in a country's history when the entire nation seems to turn in on itself and go mad. Most of us who lived through the '60s look back now and acknowledge ruefully what a crazed decade we experienced. Oh, bliss it was in that dawn to be young, but did any of what we did really matter? Youth's anthems turn so quickly quaint, and now we know that while we were singing and strumming away, what was blowin' in the wind was not freedom, love, and liberation so much as the seeds of insanity. On a morning in early April of 1968 I was setting out on a trip from Dublin to Berkeley, California, and glimpsed from the taxi a newspaper poster announcing the murder of Martin Luther King. Two months later, almost to the day, passing through Heathrow Airport on my way back from California, I was stopped in my tracks by a three-inch-tall headline: kennedy assassinated. Jet-lagged and still half doped, I wondered dazedly why people should be reading five-year-old newspapers. It was not JFK the papers were mourning, of course, but his brother Robert. The madmen, it seemed, had taken over the streets.

The Diary of a Rapist was first published in 1966, when a million flowers were blossoming and it seemed everybody was or wanted to be high on a hill in San Francisco. Evan S. Connell's version of the city, however, is one that might have been crooned not by Tony Bennett but by Berg's Jack the Ripper (as Kafka remarked, it is the song sung out of the deepest hell that sounds sweetest). Earl Summerfield is twenty-six and works as a clerk at the State Unemployment Bureau. He is married, unsatisfactorily, to say the least, to a schoolteacher who has little time for him and under whose thumb, or stiletto heel, he wriggles in frustration and murderous fury. The book is a record of his diary entries for a year. January 1 sets the tone:

Last night Bianca shook me awake and told me to stop grinding my teeth. Nothing gives her more satisfaction than to humiliate me. So one year ends, another begins.

Earl is, as Hannibal Lecter would put it, a shy boy. He has, however, a lot to say. His closest counterpart is the narrator of Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, who admits to being one of those people who "must be kept in check" but adds, "if we do come out into the world and burst out . . . will talk and talk and talk." Earl has only his diary to talk to, since no one around him, Bianca especially, will listen to him and even if they were to listen would not understand him or the high destiny he foresees: "I regard the entire world as an illusion from which each man must free himself in order to find Salvation." He is a prowler, and well acquainted with the night, like the troubled soul in Robert Frost's sinister poem. He slips into houses and stands in the dark listening to the owners asleep in their beds above him; sometimes he will leave a noisome "calling card" behind him on the mat. He suffers memory lapses and thus returns home with vague, unsettling recollections of having shouted in the street or threatened an old lady with his umbrella. As inventive as Dostoyevsky's nameless one in figuring the awfulness of things, he still sometimes feels "like a ball of string," has "trouble remembering what it's all about," and "can't say exactly why." His desperation is a constant goad: "Keep counting the coins in my pocket, wash my hands 14 times a dayˇwretched wretched!"

MAY 10
Groggy all day. I'm staying up too late. Last night dreamed of the bloody egg, a dream I've had before. Now it's just eleven, an hour I've never likedˇI'm restless and unhappy, terribly alone, and last night's dream is oppressive. I'll stand in the closet for a little while to calm myself, then have a bowl of soup and go to bed.

Women, of course, are a constant obsession, the demons who haunt his dreams and dominate his waking hours. "Seems as though I've always always always been supervised by women. There's been some woman watching me since the day I was born." Not that Earl does not have ideas on how to handle them: "If a woman's asleep or dead she doesn't judge you, no need to be afraid." Despite his fear and revulsion, however, he has a touch of the feminine himself. He treats himself to clandestine bubble baths by candlelight and even puts on Bianca's girdle and stockings and parades in front of the mirror admiring the pretty figure he cuts. This is all right, though, for even if he is more like a woman than a man, "that's usually true of exceptional men."

Earl has a deep and deeply sick fascination with crime and punishment and keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings on gruesome sex murders and their perpetrators. He is particularly excited by reported disappearances of young girls; in a discussion at the bureau of one such case, his colleague suggests the child has been snatched for the white-slave trade, but Earl thinks otherwise: "My guess however is just that she was taken for private use." It is one of the more chilling asides in a thoroughly chilling book.

In an interview three years agoˇin these pages, as it happensˇConnell said that the idea for The Diary of a Rapist first came to him when he read a newspaper report about a beauty queen who had been raped on two separate occasions by the same man, under almost identical circumstances. After the second rape the man drove her home to make sure that she got there safely. In Diary, Earl attends a public celebration of Washington's birthday on February 22ˇ"Folk dancers, mandolin player, magician, Hollywood actors giving declarations of faith in America"ˇand there encounters the young woman with whom he will become obsessed.

Then that bitch in the bathing suit climbed up on the stage wearing a cardboard crown & carrying a scepter, went parading back and forth to show off her tits. No shame. No modesty. Program said she was a dramatics student at University of CaliforniaˇMara St. Johns. She looked to me like one of those professional sluts from Hollywood. If she isn't the symbol of American rottenness, what is?

Mara the beauty queen is unfortunate enough to catch Earl's eye, and the glance ramifies in the Bluebeard's Castle that is his mind. He stalks her, following her to the church where she does volunteer work, and even calls her up anonymously on the telephone. In a sort of horrible parody of the good citizen's due observances, most of Earl's ghastly epiphanies take place on national holidays: It is on the night of July 4ˇthe date is blank in his diary, and only afterward do we learn what happenedˇthat he waylays the girl and drags her behind the church and rapes her. The starkly brief diary entries for the days before and after the crime are masterly and dreadful: July 3, "Crown wickedness with a Turd"; July 5, "White roots grow deep. The blossom is dark, the odor foul." Months later Earl is still reliving the event in a paroxysm of fury, disgust, and hopeless longing:

She closed around me like a glove, I can't forget. At least not yet. Wobbling through each day wishing she was my wifeˇmight as well admit it. I blame her for what happened, I feel no sense of guilt. Want her to admire me, still I'm disgusted by what she's doneˇthinking of how clumsily she struggled & the mindless stupefaction of her gaze.

As the year spirals down, Earl's mind goes with it. The entries grow increasingly terse while the desperation intensifies. The queasy religiosity that was splashed here and there over the early entries becomes pervasive, biblical and quasi-biblical tags proliferateˇ"The shedding of blood ends in Death but the fountain of semen is Life"ˇand Earl determines to celebrate a grim anti-Nativity: "Five days until Christmas, then I'll go." By now, for all his ghastliness, we cannot but feel a stirring of compassion for him. He is so lonely, so helpless, so lost, and his final entry is a terrible cry of desolation: "In the sight of our Lord I must be one of many."

The Diary of a Rapist is a profound and frightening study of a diseased mind and, by extension, of a nation stumbling deeper and deeper into the twin disasters of foreign warfare and internecine strife. The book has its faults. We are not told enough about Earl's past to be able to place him fully in terms of either his own history or the general social landscape, and, at times, the lack of action leaves the narrative becalmed and seemingly inconsequential. Yet it is a technical tour de force, a triumph of subtlety, control, and stylistic daring, and, in the end, an authentic and horribly compelling work of art.

John Banville's most recent novel, Shroud, has just been issued in paperback.