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Hubris is one of Norman Mailer's most endearing qualities, and it's in perfect character that he has decided, in his latest novel, to render the story of the Gospels from the point of view of Jesus.
One of our finest writers and an outsized character in his own right, Mailer has produced some 30 books of fiction and nonfiction since his great World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published a half-century ago. He is a kind of bantamweight Don Quixote, jabbing (not tilting) at feminists, the CIA, the literary establishment and the governments of the U.S. and his native New York City. His style -- audacious, lyrical, loquacious, grand -- has always especially suited the epic form. He has never been afraid to take as his subjects the great public spectacles and myths -- Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, Marilyn Monroe, the execution of Gary Gilmore and, most recently, the lives of Lee Harvey Oswald and Pablo Picasso. And he has consistently imbued them with new life and meaning.
So it is keenly disappointing to read Mailer's most recent novel, The Gospel According to the Son. The best that can be said of it is that it is well-researched -- Mailer is clearly familiar with the Gospels, the Apocrypha and the scholarship regarding them -- and that he chose an inherently interesting story. In stilted language meant, one supposes, to echo the cadences of the King James Bible, Mailer renders a Jesus as opaque as the Jesus of the gospels, whose contradictions have troubled thoughtful Christians for centuries. Convinced that some of the more vengeful sayings of the otherwise infinitely forgiving Biblical Jesus had to have been the works of later, less enlightened sectarians, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Jefferson both edited them out, as did the Jewish scholar and translator Stephen Mitchell, a longtime student of Zen Buddhism whose nonfiction The Gospel According to Jesus offers a far more coherent and provocative life of Jesus than Mailer's novel.
But Mailer chooses not to deviate from Christian orthodoxy, except in minor instances -- a new and more idealistic motivation for Judas, a slightly less spectacular interpretation of the loaves and fishes miracle -- which would not be a problem if Mailer had been able to bring this traditional Jesus to life. For his opportunity here -- and one would think it a challenge well-suited to Mailer's imaginative skills -- was to capture the spiritual evolution of a man who understood himself to be divine, a man who understood his destiny to be the spiritual salvation of mankind.
But Mailer's Jesus does not develop. He pronounces. Mailer's retelling is as sketchy and inexpert as a children's Christmas pageant. Mailer, who often says that he never stops writing because he has so many children to support (he has been married six times), may simply have given himself too little time for this project. Or maybe, for the first time, his timidity in the presence of an understandably intimidating subject defeated his considerable imagination. -- Salon