Norman Mailer, the Testosterone Kid of American Letters, has rewritten the Bible. No wonder the literary and religious establishments are up in arms
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Short men in Spain have long clung to an ancient belief that the male of the species grows in inverse proportion to his testicular weight. The heavier the cojones, the logic goes, the greater the gravitational pull.

Most medical scientists would beg to differ but an examination of Norman Mailer, five foot six in his shoes, might give them pause for thought. A heroic womaniser in his day, a hard drinker and an amateur boxer who favoured fisticuffs outside the ring, he has sired nine children and married as many times as Henry VIII. And, while he falls short of the macho monarch in having spared his wives the executioner's blade, it has not been for want of trying.

Adele Morales, his part-Spanish second wife, recalls one of their more violent domestic encounters in a recently published autobiography. A particularly boisterous party at their home in New York in 1960 concluded with Mailer trading punches out on the street with his departing guests. As Adele tells it, at four in the morning, when the last of the guests had gone, he re-entered the house covered in blood and crazed like a bull. The marriage was not in good shape, and had not been for some time. Adele, who'd had a few drinks herself, responded like a no less crazed matador. "'Aja toro, aja,' I called. 'Come on you little faggot, where's your cojones? Did your ugly whore of a mistress cut them off, you son of a bitch?'"

In the circumstances there was little else that Mailer, who in those days fancied himself to be Hemingway's spiritual heir, could possibly have done. He rushed at his wife with a pen-knife and stabbed her, missing her heart by inches but consigning her to an intensive-care ward, in critical condition, for three weeks.

The feminist movement has never taken Mailer to its collective bosom. (Neither has it been much impressed by Adele, who saved her husband from jail by refusing to testify against him in court.) After writing a bitingly anti-feminist polemic, provocatively entitled The Prisoner of Sex, he drew up a shortlist of the world's greatest authors, not one of whom was a woman. Explaining himself, he deemed the female candidates to have been "fey, old-hat, quaintsy, dykily psychotic".

Seven years after the Adele incident, in a hugely praised piece of journalism about the anti-Vietnam War movement entitled The Armies of the Night, he strove unrepentantly to fuel his own virile legend with some choice rantings on the subject of his appetite for female flesh. Mailer, writing in the third person, says of himself: "He had spent the first 44 years of his life in an intimate dialogue, a veritable dialectic with the swoops, spooks, starts, the masks and snarls, the calm lucid abilities of sin, sin was his favourite fellow, his tonic, his jailer, his horse, his sword ... "

When he is not writing about himself, psycho males have provided rich matter for his exuberant pen. The men he has profiled in his books have included Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Gilmore (the double murderer executed by firing squad) and Pablo Picasso. His hero is the greatest prize-fighter of all time, Muhammad Ali, whose fight with George Foreman - which he covered ringside for Playboy in 1974 - he recalls with vivid, muscular eloquence in the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings.

The author of Tough Guys Don't Dance, who once headbutted Gore Vidal before a TV programme in which they were both due to appear, has cultivated in his prodigious writings, as in his life, the image of a wild man, a literary noble savage. It is no more possible to imagine him creating a serious, interesting female character than it is to picture John Wayne dressed in high heels and skirt.

So what, then, is the Testosterone Kid of American Letters doing coming out and writing a gentle, loving, delicate portrait of Jesus Christ in his latest novel (and 30th published book), The Gospel According to the Son? At 74, has he gone soft? Has the old dog lost his teeth?

On first inspection of the town where he lives you could be forgiven for thinking he had. Provincetown is a little beach resort on the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a sliver of land shaped on the map like the grim reaper's beckoning claw in Monty Python's Meaning of Life. "Probably the gay capital of America", in Mailer's words, Provincetown (pop. 3,000 in winter, 30,000 in summer) is dense with art galleries, "mocacchino" coffee bars, pretty beachside houses with lawns, and muscular, well-tanned men in shorts who stroll around in couples trailing small dogs. Mailer's home is, by American celebrity standards, modest. No drive, no gate, no tennis court, no garden to speak of, it does not stand in isolation but on a row of similarly unspectacular houses dotting a quiet road that runs into the town centre, parallel to the sea. The only thing that distinguishes Mailer's home from his neighbours' is a mildly forbidding growth of vegetation that almost entirely camouflages the red brick walls.

Mailer sits himself down on a tall bench, arms propped on a bar, his back against a big window that looks out onto the sea, an undramatic sea of calmly lapping waves. Everything about the place seems to convey an atmosphere of unmenacing stillness.

Which prompts you to wonder what on earth he is doing here, given the kind of man we have all been led to believe he is. Would it not be fair to say that Provincetown is a little twee, a tad pre-cious? "No," he bristles. "It has a rough tradition. It used to be a whaling town. It's a mixture of native stock, of Yankee and Portuguese. They inter-married. Very tough stock. Very tough people."

Not only tough but, he goes on to explain, libertine, and therefore in perfect harmony with the twin pillars on which his reputation rests. There is, it turns out, rather more to Provincetown than meets the eye of the occasional visitor. "Years ago I used to tell Jackie Kennedy this was the Wild West of the East. It's got a little yuppified now but it's still probably the freest place in America. Last year a lesbian band hired the town hall for a concert and about 60 women showed up. And there was one cop, a woman, there. At a given point in the performance the lead singer took off her blouse and her bra. She then strapped on a black dildo. At that point the cop stepped in and said, 'Hey, you can't do that.' At which point all the women in the audience took off their blouses and their bras. The cop just fled in panic.

"It came up at the board of selectmen [town council] about a week later. One of the selectmen - there are five - an old Portuguee said, 'You know, that wasn't right nor fair what those girls did. If they'd wanted to, they could have hired any club in town and done it and nobody would have said anything, but they shouldn't have done it in the town hall.' That," Mailer grins, "was the only slap they got! That was all! So, what I mean is, I think you'd have to travel far in America before you'd find a town as free as this one."

Mailer has gone a little hard of hearing. He walks slowly, arthritically. Catch him off-guard and a gentle jab to the ribs would put him on his back. But, like Tennyson's ageing Ulysses, "though much is taken, much abides". You can see in his crystal-blue eyes and hear in his rich, gravelly voice how, throughout his life, the women have been falling at his feet. You can judge from the rugged energy he exudes why his pleasant all-American wife - a blonde Amazon from Arkansas 26 years his junior - dotes on him. Not that you'd have any sense of his blunt vitality from a reading of his Gospel, where the sinewy gusto of his talk gives way to what John Updike described as a "neo-Biblical dignity" and "quietly penetrating tone". Mailer the flesh and blood sinner, you imagine, would jump Mary Magdalene. But in Christ his creation she elicits barely a rustle in the divine loincloth.

Many of the book's critics, some of whom have been savage, have seemed determined not to distinguish between novelist and novel, between the real Mailer man and his fictional voice. In part, he asked for it. It is almost as if he deliberately sought to goad his detractors to new peaks of rage, to leave himelf wide open to the charge that he has committed the most monstrous act of presumption since Milton's Satan. For the book is written in the first person. It is an autobiography of Jesus Christ written by Norman Mailer. The novelistic conceit is that Jesus, having borne in silence for 2,000 years the half-baked accounts of his life concocted by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, has decided to get off his heavenly butt and set the record straight once and for all.

For his pains, Mailer has been spat upon, crucified. "Silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical," said one critic. Another: "While the King James version soars, the King Norman version bores." The New Republic went ballistic. Under the triumphant headline "He is finished", the magazine portrayed him on the cover as a grotesque cartoon troll wearing a crown of thorns. "Gibberish!" the review inside said. "Each new book by him is worse than his last." Mailer, the New Republic complained, feels, "like Christ, he is half man and half something else - a kind of celebrity centaur".

Mailer wheeled on another celebrity centaur to help him explain why it is a mistake to conclude that the first-person narrator of the book and the author are one, indivisible. "I once was kidding Warren Beatty - I was doing a story on him - I'd just seen Bugsy, where he plays a particularly violent, psychopathic man. It was an uncharacteristic role for Beatty because he showed sides of himself that no one had ever seen on the screen before. He truly was brutal, sadistic. So I was kidding him, saying, 'Gee, aren't you afraid it's going to change everyone's notion of you?' And so forth and so on. He said, 'No, people are much more sophisticated about actors than they used to be. My friends know' - most of his friends are actors - 'that if you want to play a part you always have to have 5 per cent of it in you.' So I thought about that for a while and it seemed to me the same kind of thing went on in writing, that you can create any number of characters, all you need is 5 per cent of that person in yourself. People always make that error, particularly when you write in the first person, that you're writing about yourself. You're not. You're taking an aspect of yourself, it's a very small part of yourself, and, you know, you have a trained imagination."

He speaks without pause. No "hums", no "wells", barely a "you know". None of the relentless grammatical precision, pedantic qualifiers or self-conscious pursuit of the mot juste you come to expect, in Britain in particular, from people who sell prose for a living. If his words were to appear on a screen as he spoke them they would come out in a blur, like a flurry of Ali punches. Mailer's Jesus, by contrast, speaks in gentle, deliberate cadences. For he is a tormented soul, torn between human weakness and the ineluctability of his calling. Mailer himself comes across as a man who is done with complication. He exudes total certitude.

"I was reading the New Testament and the light went on. I thought there's so much here, so much of it exquisitely written, so much of it badly written - or not so much badly written as written in an essentially lacklustre style. It's not true of the Old Testament. It certainly is true of the New Testament. You just have this mixture of extraordinary lines and weak lines, inserted in certain places by these committees that were writing the gospels. And the feeling I had was that if you've been a writer for 60 years and you can't do better than a committee then you'd better quit. Espe-cially if you have the same access to the great lines that they do. So that didn't bother me."

But wasn't he bothered about what people might think of his decision to write in the first person? "Most of my books are written in the first person. I like the first person because it gives you an immediacy. It has a lot of problems technically, because you can't enter other people's minds and sometimes to get the story around a given corner you have to develop some other way of doing it. But in any event I love the immediacy of it and I thought there's no use rewriting the gospels in the third person. Later it probably would have seemed sacriligious because nowhere in the gospel is the mind of Jesus Chirst entered and there's no point in rewriting unless one can enter the mind, at least from my point of view. And I just thought, I have a feeling about this man. I don't pretend to understand the god, but the man went through a great deal. And that's what I love to do. I love to write about people who are in extreme situations."

Christ was not just "people". But until Mailer came to write about him he says he had no relationship with him whatsoever. "I'm Jewish, I'm not an observant Jew but it's never occurred to me that I'm not Jewish. I would never convert to anything else, not because I have this profound affection for Jewish orthodoxy. One loves a religion when it enriches the very core of one's being. I have a huge respect for the mystical values in orthodox religion but the disciplines do not appeal to me and I would never go near it. There again I would never convert because that would be a betrayal of my people, you see, even if I disbelieved entirely I would never convert. So it wasn't that. I'd never felt close to Jesus.

"But I've been going through my work because there's going to be a book coming out in May 1998 that will cover - it will be the 50th anniversary of The Naked and the Dead - excerpts from most of my 30 books in one huge collection, and going through it I was startled by how religious a bent I've had all these years. I hadn't been aware of it. A remark in one book, a paragraph in another, a few pages in another, a sense of God and the Devil in another - there's hardly a book without a lot of religious preoccupation. So I felt, to the contrary, far from this being an odd book, this really is the logical continuation of what I've been writing about. There have been so many references to Jesus Christ in the course of my work that finally it was almost as if something said: 'come to grips with it'."

But "come to grips with it" with what goal in mind? To set about his own born-again exercise in spiritual reformation? Is this Norman Mailer: Fidei Defensor? No. Artistically, his aim is to compensate for what he judges to have been the failure of the New Testament adequately to prepare the reader for Jesus's all-too-human cry on the cross to God his father, "Why hast thou forsaken me?"

He also has a broader purpose, which is to educate the mind and nourish the spirit. But Mailer is no fisher of men.

"I felt that I could write this book for a group of readers for whom it would make some kind of sense, which is all those people out in no- man's-land who've had some religious background, whether Jewish or Christian. There are some Christians who grew up in the church and left it; some Christians who never paid much attention to it but heard of Jesus all their lives; Jews who've lived under the shadow of Jesus all their lives. And I thought, none of them know the story. What they know are bits and pieces, quotations from the New Testament - even the fundamentalists tend to know much more about the specific sayings than about the story, and the story is wonderful. This is the fable of all time, by which I'm not saying it is untrue. It is the core narrative of Western civilisation and an awful lot of people don't know the story very well. So I wrote it without any desire to exaggerate or enrich it unduly, or to denigrate it. I wanted to do it as a craftsman, to write a novel that would give you the story in reasonably intelligent fashion and create a believable man who happened to be the son of God - which reverses the proportions in the New Testament where he's the son of God who always very incidentally happened to be a man."

The one contemporary man who, in Mailer's estimation, comes closer to divinity than any other he knows is Muhammad Ali. He once described him in writing as "the Prince of Heaven", though now he says that was an expression first coined by Ali's adoring handlers. "But if there is a Prince of Heaven on Earth it probably is Ali. I saw Ali about three months ago and he's saintly now, it's absolutely extraordinary. His eyes just glow with love," Mailer says, suddenly, uncannily, speaking in the holy cadences of the Jesus of his Gospel. "You know, there he is, big as ever, handsome as ever and his hands shake all the time, they quiver, and he speaks very slowly. But his eyes are luminous. They look at you and there is such love in him. I promise you in the old days they didn't have that kind of love in them. And he's loved by everyone. People adore him. People come up to him like they could have gone up to Mother Teresa. They're really on a pilgrimage too. That love comes to him and then he gives it back."

Much the same has been said of Princess Diana, who since her death has almost become - as John Lennon said of the Beatles - bigger than Jesus. In America the only living figure who remains bigger than Diana, in Mailer's estimation, is Ali. His death, he said, would inspire among the American public the same effusion of national mourning Diana's has among the British. "One doesn't want to think about Ali in this way but I'm certain if, you know, something terrible happened to him in the next few years and he died you'd have something equivalent here." The reason for the unlikely bond he discerns between Ali and Diana is that both have tapped, in very different ways, into the same crying spiritual hunger.

"I think the world has become so rotten - it's become prosperous but rotten - that people have an immense need to be able to believe there is someone out there who's a loving soul and who's in a position of power. Diana fitted that notion. Ali fits it. You can name a few others perhaps, not many. Nelson Mandela. Not many, not many. I think that was a big part of it. I know a woman who is an immensely sophisticated woman who was in Greece at the time that Diana died. A friend of hers was speaking to her and then told me she cried for four hours after the news. She was vastly more sophisticated than Diana, this woman. None the less, she too identified with her. It's the most extraordinary business. I don't pretend to understand it. You'd have to know the English far better than I do."

Here he is being a mite disingenuous. He might not be all that familar with the English as a race but he did once have intimate knowledge of the aristocratic set to which Diana belonged. His third wife was Lady Jeanne Campbell, daughter of the Duke of Argyll. Surely he has some thoughts to share on what the Diana affair reveals about her besotted people. Modestly, he responds that he has no major perceptions, having not dwelt on the matter as avidly as many of his compatriots have done.

"But one thing I was thinking of on the whole thing was that, you know, Americans always loved Jackie Onassis because she was so English in a funny way. Not just English, French-English. She was aristocratic, the one thing of which we're in short supply here. And I think what's happening now is that the English are becoming much more Americanised. Diana was a royal who was very American. But for her British accent, she was American. American in her dramas, American in the way she reacted to things. A lot of young people in Britain were wiped out by it, I understand, and I think it's that they also are hugely Americanised now. They've been held down by these subtle social pressures for hundreds of years but now, with this, that sense that you can be yourself has obviously come to fever point."

On the other hand he was reluctant to join the chorus of complaint against the Old England stuffiness and reserve of the House of Windsor. "The other thought I have is I really felt sorry for Charles. Because he certainly has made his public relations mistakes. But the point is that he stood for something. He hates modern architecture. Had he been able to become king in an orderly fashion he might have been able to do something about it. He might have educated the people about what modern architecture is doing to the modern sensibility. In that sense he stood for more, intellectually certainly, than Diana did. But there is a backlash against intellectuality today which oddly enough is an offshoot of global capitalism. They feel awful smart having taken over the world and running it. So they think they're the smart people with their limousines and their helicopters or whatever so they get at the intellectuals. There's an animus towards intellectuals."

And he hates them back. If there is a cause behind his Gospel here it is. Judas Iscariot, whom he portrays as an out and out socialist revolutionary, is by far the most thoughtful and interesting of the disciples. The chapter in which Mailer's authentic, vigorous voice rings loudest is the one where his purpose is most clearly political. Jesus, quietly boiling with rage, is observing the money-lenders in the temple. "I thought of money and how it was an odious beast. It consumed everything offered to it. What slobbering was in such greed! I thought of how the rich are choked with the weight of gold, and their gardens grow no fruit to satisfy them. There is oppression in the perfume of the air, and none of the rich man's blooms brings happiness."

Here Mailer and his Jesus are one. "I hate the corporate takeover of existence," he says. "It seems to me it brings us right back to Marx. The notion of Marx is that money, left to itself, pushes out all other human values, and reduces all human values to an index that's measured by money. And so it seems to me that if anything is to shape up against global capitalism it's going to be Judaeo-Christian socialism. If religion is regenerated in years to come, if Christians start taking themselves seriously as Christians, they have to recognise that socialism is a more equitable form of existence than capitalism, more in keeping with the spirit of Christ. Will it come to pass? I doubt it. I think we've really got to mess up the whole damn thing and end up with a really curious and hateful world before anything's going to happen."

He did not quite say so but he seemed to recognise that he himself had gone through his curious and hateful phase before becoming the luminous gospel-writer, the disciple of Ali, the ally of Prince Charles and, as it would seem, the devoted husband that he is now. "I know my own faults of character and I see them in other writers. We're vain, selfish, egocentric bastards - that's what we are. That goes with the territory. You start off spoiled if you become a writer, and you become more spoiled if you have some success."

Mailer has no intention of becoming less spoiled. After his 50th anniversary compendium comes out he means to embark on another novel, what he describes as an ambitious and immensely challenging sequel to Harlot's Ghost, which he wrote over a decade ago. And presumably there will be something after that too. Maybe - who knows - a portrait of Judas as Che Guevara.

What keeps him going? "Oh, I never look into that. Would a marathoner say to himself at the 20th mile, the 21st mile, 'What keeps me going?' " By that calculation, figuring that a marathon is 27 miles long and he is 74, he is reckoning on making it to a hundred years old. But don't bet against it. Mailer's cojones are built to last.

Norman Mailer's 'The Gospel According to the Son' (published by Abacus, pounds 14) is out now.