Lost Empress. By Sergio de la Pava.Pantheon; 640 pages; $29.95. To be published in Britain in August by MacLehose Press; £20.

ON A one-way bus ride to Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous prison, Nuno DeAngeles’s thoughts turn to René Descartes, whose “mind-body dualism” is “the only out he sees right now…There’s two of him and only one’s going in.” Descartes and Rikers are among the unlikely conjunctions in Sergio de la Pava’s expansive new novel, “Lost Empress”, a 600-page melting pot of criminal-justice policy, American football and metaphysics.

When her ailing father divides up his football empire, Nina Gill inherits the underdog team, Paterson Pork, while the Dallas Cowboys are left to her brother. Nina vows to usurp the NFL with a rival football league. She also has her eye on a different prize: a long-lost painting by Salvador Dalí, hidden somewhere behind the barbed wire of Rikers. Nuno, a brainy criminal, aims to retrieve it for her before time runs out.

Literally. As well as a searing critique of American society, “Lost Empress” is a countdown to the apocalypse, an impending doom that rests on parallel worlds, a football pass and a biblical flood. The book oscillates between hilarious surrealism and shocking reality. As in his first novel, “A Naked Singularity”, Mr de la Pava (a public defender) deploys his expertise in a maximalist form reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Legal transcripts jostle with diagrams of “Time” and the prison’s “Inmate Rule Book”.

Besides Nina’s and Nuno’s, other stories unfold. A 911-call operator reaches breaking point. An Italian pastor attempts to bring God to the incarcerated. Cancerous cells multiply in a young man’s brain. Occasionally the tone of the hyperintelligent narrator blurs the distinctions between the characters. But Mr de la Pava’s psychological insights compensate for that glitch.

With messianic fervour, he conjures up marginalised voices and the horrors of mass incarceration, against a backbeat of sporting thrills and that apocalyptic crescendo. Describing a court motion of Nuno’s, the narrator enjoins readers to “think about a literary work undertaken in the literal pursuit of freedom, which is to say life”. They will not have to think for long: they are reading one.