IT SOMETIMES happens that a critic will judge it incumbent on himself (or herself) to preface a review with a 'declaration of interest'. In a similar spirit, if with a slight shift in etymological emphasis, I feel duty- bound to declare a certain lack of interest: before being invited to review it, I was not too well disposed to Live from Golgotha.
This distaste had nothing to do with the reputation preceding the book, of an outrageously irreverent impiety. A believer (of sorts) as I am, I've always been excessively unfanatical about blasphemy, which in any case seems to me seldom to 'work'. No, the author himself was the issue. Once something of a hero of mine, he has long since set my teeth on edge with his unseemly patrician preenings and posturings (his sainted grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, has become a particularly intrusive pest of Vidalian folklore), with his smug determination, in recent collections of essays, to be the smartest alec on the block and, above all, with that ongoing cycle of clumpish historical novels which sound the way James Michener, say, might sound after taking a course in creative writing.
My heart also sank when, flicking through this novel's pages, I immediately lit on the profanity 'Jesus Christ]' And, sure enough, every joke you would expect to be there is there. 'Speak of the devil,' somebody murmurs on Jesus's approach; and 'That's blasphemy]' somebody else protests with cute superfluity in a book that is nothing but and knows it. (In fact, the sole lost opportunity, by Vidal's own campy criterion, is that no lewd mileage is made out of 'the Second Coming'.)
These, however, turn out to be exceptions in a book which has more good one-liners to the square paragraph than . . . actually, it's difficult to think of anything comparable. Live from Golgotha is not just a comic novel but a stand-up comic novel, less 'The Gospel According to Gore Vidal' (as the subtitle has it) than 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Golgotha', a brilliantly sustained shtick delivered by Timothy, the future St Paul's hunky catamite (according to Vidal) and the historical recipient of his Epistles. If comparisons are in order, they are not with any novelist (save perhaps Vidal himself, in the swishy self-referentiality of Myron and the eschatological alarums of Kalki) but with movie directors like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.
With Allen Vidal shares a predilection for gags with a bathetically dying fall (Timothy on the proto-American standardisation of the Roman Empire: 'It's certainly convenient for the rest of us knowing that no matter where you are you'll find a forum and an amphitheatre and a law court and pizza with fish sauce'). And, like Brooks, if on a very superior level of invention, he seems almost in thrall to the show business pizzazz whose inanity he is also concerned to denounce (St Paul enlivens his speeches with a neat tap-dancing routine, precisely as the Monster does in Young Frankenstein). As an example of what might be called 'crucifiction', then, it's far closer to The Life of Brian than to The Last Temptation of Christ.
Live from Golgotha does have a plot, one involving a 20th-century conspiracy (with much Feydeau-esque popping in and out of time-frames and droll guest appearances by Mary Baker Eddy and even Shirley MacLaine) to erase the tapes of Mark's Gospel from our universal memory bank and thereby license the history of Christ to be rewritten at will. I found this part of the narrative, if not exactly incomprehensible, then just too confoundedly complicated to be worth endeavouring to keep in mind from page to page. In any event, it turns out not to be that crucial.
What keeps one catching one's breath, and again and again, is the unfailing brio with which, by whisking them through the biblical blender, Vidal pricks and parodies various socio-cultural jargons of the Nineties, from feminist pieties to hideous agent-speak, while at the same time ruthlessly exposing the fragility of all ossified iconography. Indeed, the single most shocking conjecture in the novel is possibly that Jesus might have been . . . fat. It may seem a facile calumny, the very least of Vidal's gags, but it needs only a moment of reflection to realise what a calamitous effect, had it been so, an overweight Redeemer might have had on the history of Christianity.
If God, as they say, sees everything, then He'll see Live From Golgotha. Will He be amused by this monstrous joke told against His works? Probably not. For, if Vidal is to be believed, He's only human, after all.
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