BOOK REVIEW / The Crucifixion as crude science fiction: 'Live from Golgotha' - Gore Vidal: Andre Deutsch, 14.99 pounds

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UNUSUALLY for a modern publisher, Andre Deutsch has packaged Gore Vidal's new (and 22nd) novel, Live From Golgotha, without any critical testimonials to the author on the dustjacket. Unfortunately, it rather spoils the effect of this discretion by releasing, at the same time, a 300-page book of bouquets: Gore Vidal - Writer Against The Grain (pounds 15.99). This collection of essays, a symposium of brown-nosers, culminates in an interview in which Vidal is thrown explosive posers like: 'You've had at least two major hits on Broadway and a string of huge bestsellers. What accounts for your popularity?'

Although Vidal modestly replies 'I've no idea', it is hard for the critic to ignore the fact that his latest book has come accompanied. You give it the extra interest you might accord the anonymous-looking diner who enters the restaurant with two bodyguards or the nanny who arrives with a reference from Mia Farrow. In the case of Live From Golgotha, though, the testimonials do not long survive inspection of the object praised. The nanny drops the baby; the bodyguards walk to another table and turn out to be protecting someone else.

It is not that Vidal's work completely undeserves the escort, more that this is the wrong book for it. Live From Golgotha is another in the sideline of novels that the writer turns out as light relief (for himself at least) from the big and serious books such as Empire, Hollywood, Lincoln and Washington DC, which form his career-long project of a fictional biography of America. Those are novels that any middle American would be happy to have on their bookshelves beside the Readers Digest Condensed Library. As if such respectability is an affront to his carefully constructed iconoclasm, Vidal deliberately interleaves them with books that any middle American would be glad to have in their garbage bin. Spoofs and ruderies like Messiah, Duluth and Myra Breckinridge demolish the Republic's foundations quite as diligently as his historical sequence rebuilds them.

In Live From Golgotha, the narrator is St Timothy, recipient of St Paul's letters and also - in Vidal's version - of the sexual favours of the former Saul, here a tap-dancing wheeler-dealer known to his mates as 'Saint'. As PR man for Jesus, 'Saint' faces the problem that his client has the physique, in the gospel according to Gore, of late-period Elvis Presley. However, Saint manages to fix the historical record, so that the evangelists and fresco-painters fall for the slim Jesus and his 'logo' of the cross.

But the author seems bored with merely offering another two fingers to religion - a shrewd emotion - and wraps his rather off-the-peg heresies in an amusingly ludicrous science fiction plot. Forward in the late 20th century, the American network NBC (Nuclear Broadcasting Corporation) unveils a new weapon in the ratings war. A time toy called The Cutler Effect permits a television crew to travel back to the time of the Crucifixion to produce 'Live From Golgotha', on-the-spot reports from the foot of the cross, with St Timothy as link-man. AD 33 and AD 1992 exist contemporaneously so that St Timothy watches day-time game-shows and Shirley MacLaine attends the Crucifixion.

Another twist is that a computer virus is destroying all copies of the gospels. This includes scripture which exists not on computer disc, but in human memories and on paper. (This is the kind of sloppy science fiction in which inconsistencies and objections are flicked away with the quick improvisation of another cod law of physics.) The Hacker is Marvin Wasserstein, who may also be Jesus, the Messiah possibly having survived Crucifixion by substituting Judas for himself.

I would not put my shirt on this precis. Live From Golgotha can confidently be described as the most complicated American plot since Iran-Contra. Hence, although assorted bishops and preachers have given the book just the kind of sales push Vidal and his publishers dreamed of, it has to be said that any Christian wanting to be offended would have to prepared to put in a lot of time unravelling the blasphemies.

Even for the reader merely wanting to be entertained, Vidal's lack of satirical discipline lets his targets escape. There are some bright gags against television. St Timothy, being schooled in TV presentation by his back-from-the-future NBC minders, is advised to 'ask Mary Magdalene whether she thinks prostitution should be legalised'. Shooting the Crucifixion, an NBC executive frets, raises the problem of 'how long you can keep the viewers staring at someone just hanging there'.

But these are jokes about television trivialising something sacred. Given that Vidal is simultaneously arguing that Christianity sanctifies something trivial - his Jesus is 'just another run-of-the-mill Zionist terrorist' - the anti-television jokes are exploded by the anti-religion ones.

The prose works a single joke, though occasionally sweetly. The time-slip structure sanctions anachronism, so that, typically, a description of St Paul's activities runs: 'Saint always worked the circuit like there was no tomorrow, preaching, collecting money, and putting together what was, frankly, the greatest mailing list ever assembled by anyone in the Roman world . . .' But, elsewhere, to call Vidal's sense of humour 'schoolboy' is a more precise rudeness than usual. The first few chapters throb with exactly that adolescent thrill at the theological significance of the foreskin. St Timothy has, conveniently, 'the largest dick in our part of Asia Minor', which receives a long and drawn-out circumcision early on.

For all the aimed-at danger of Gore Vidal's entertainments, he remains a safe satirist for all but the dumbest fundamentalists and Republicans. His style is too languid for fury, his plot is too silly to wound.