GANGSTERS by Evan Zimroth (Crown: 247 pp., $23) Nicole is an "observant Jew" who wouldn't think of opening an umbrella on the Sabbath or eating shrimp. She is married, teaches a college course in religion and carpools her two children and their friends around Manhattan. Yet for years she has carried on a series of abandoned, even kinky, affairs. Nicole meets her match when a colleague and former lover, Jules, introduces her to Tom, a divorced architect whose career is being dragged down by lawsuits. Tom is a devout Christian but, like Nicole, also a worshiper at the altar of erotic intensity. The two of them together are like gasoline and matches. The only questions are how big the fire will be and how many of the people around them will be burned.
In this first novel--she has published two volumes of poetry--Zimroth attempts something difficult. Perhaps too difficult. Both her main characters have holes in them--the gap between their beliefs and their behavior. We can speculate about it. We can say that the form their religions take--Nicole's legalism, Tom's smug faith in forgiveness--are cunningly designed to lend their transgressions a thrill. Certainly, these die-hard romantics believe that sex, like God, is worth throwing away the rest of their lives--not to mention Nicole's children's lives, her husband's or Jules'.
But speculation isn't enough to make a character seem real. All we see of Tom, in particular, is the hole in him. Zimroth does better with Nicole, whose domestic side is described in such detail that the idea of her at least begins to turn into flesh.