Not blasphemous; just bland. Versions of the life of Christ written in the spirit that Norman Mailer calls "neither pious nor satirical" have flourished in English ever since the young George Eliot translated Das Leben Jesu by David Strauss. This one is stronger than the worst, weaker than the finest, and more orthodox than many. The Jesus invoked by several Church of England bishops does not (any more) rise bodily from the tomb. Mailer's does, even though He can't quite grasp the mechanics of His resurrection.

Mailer alters the angle with his first-person approach; but the voice he gives Jesus either mimics familiar Gospel speeches or else echoes the mood of inner struggle from Nikos Kazantzakis's Last Temptation of Christ. Original touches don't stray much further than the hint of a gay-friendly Messiah. Even the stress on Jesus as a fanatical Essene comes from popularisations of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Like an aggrieved superstar traduced by the tabloids, Jesus begins by cursing the Gospel writers "who gave me words I never uttered and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage". Yet this pretence at supplying a corrected version breaks down at every crisis. From wilderness to crucifixion, Mailer invariably falls back on the incomparable drama of the Gospel narratives themselves.

Mailer's loss of creative nerve does not prove that a convincing modern Jesus cannot be drawn. The best is still Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to Saint Matthew - a tender and reverent film directed by a promiscuous, atheistic Marxist. Whether you call it inspiration or the Holy Spirit, something wonderful touched Pasolini - but flew straight past Norman Mailer.

Publ by Little, Brown, pounds 14