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"Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal," by Gore Vidal

Note: a version of this book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.     

If God exists and Jesus is His son, then Gore Vidal is going to hell. And if God is a Jew, Vidal is no better off. There's enough to outrage everyone in this sometimes wonderful, always audacious--and courageous--send-up of "the story of Our Lord Jesus Christ as told in the three synoptic gospels as well as by that creep John" and by St. Paul in the epistles to St. Timothy. Since super-wit Vidal, astute chronicler and commentator of American mores, has already taken on the likes of Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Norman Podhoretz family, William Buckley, and even Moby Dick and Norman Mailer, it's not surprising that he might want to take on St. Paul, perhaps the second most important figure in Christianity. Who will win? Don't bet on St. Paul.

     This novel reveals Vidal at his satirical best, and, alas, at his most self-indulgent. Part Sterne, part Burroughs, his story is not simple. Computer technology has made possible "a systematic erasure of the Good News" of the emergence of Christ as recorded in the New Testament. A "cyberpunk, or Hacker" has unleashed a virus that is attacking "the memory banks of every computer on earth as well as in Heaven and limbo.... The Greatest Story Ever Told ... is being un-told."

     St. Timothy, the narrator, must not only re-chronicle the days leading to the Crucifixion and subsequent Resurrection, but, as it turns out, he must correct the record. New computer software will allow the re-playing of those great events.

     Alerted, time-traveling news crews are rushing back to Golgotha to record the "truth," Chet of NBC explains to Timothy while soliciting him to anchor the mega-broadcast--live! Of course, channelers and holograms are creating a traffic jam, along with network and big-business executives, New Age heroines, and "kibitzers" eager to influence the new version--all on their way to Golgotha.

     "I don't understand a word you're saying," says a bewildered Timothy when St. Paul ("Saint") is attempting to clarify more of this. "Amen," the reader may say. But it is to Vidal's credit that we go along with his invitation to Golgotha.

     Jesus is recurrently chastised for having taken so long to make his promised come-back. ("It's a return," another great star, Norma Desmond, insisted.) Some readers may become just as impatient with how long it takes Vidal to get to the core his novel. Referring to St. Paul's performance as a preacher of the gospel, Timothy asks: "So how did Saint get through the dull parts? He invented ... tap dancing."

     To retain our interest in the pre-journey, Vidal does a lot of literary "tap-dancing" himself--some fancy, some clumsy.

     The concept of a fat, waddling Jesus is salubriously comic, but when Vidal can't stop talking about the Lord's "glandular problem," he becomes like the person at a party who isn't satisfied with one good laugh, and so keeps re-telling his joke. (Curiously Vidal's Jesus remains as sexless as that of the Gospels.)

     Vidal makes a genuinely satiric--and valid--point in contending that Timothy's circumcision by St. Paul, whom he depicts as a lecher lusting after young boys, is a central event in the emergence of Christianity. The matter did, after all, create a factional fuss among ecclesiastics. Still, circumcision becomes a kind of leitmotif--organs always large, skin plentiful.

     In a meanly hilarious diatribe by one Selma Suydam about Marianne Williams and the true authorship of the "Course on Miracles," Selma claims that Marianne may be conniving to become the Messiah. But Vidal's inclusion of Mary Baker Eddy's recipe for a "gin daisy" is at best baffling.

     There are long dissertations about politics (a subject dear to Vidal's heart--he is poignantly proud of his political sorties). When Priscilla, hostess to St. Paul and dilettante addicted to French phrases, makes herself up in her "faux égyptien mirror" and shares a "faux égyptien basin," that's funny; but when such phrases recur for pages, the joke becomes precious. So do Timothy's dozen-or-so references to his darling "hyacinthine curls and pink-strawberry lips."

     Vidal is effectively wicked when he parodies T.V. hype in preparation for what may be The Show of Shows--"the whole ball of wax, live!" But he can turn tasteless--Nero's seduction of Timothy is referred to as "date rape," and a mention of Orson Welles's weight is gratuitous. The reader may suspect that Vidal is indulging private jokes and pokes--how else to account for a smack at Mother Teresa (did she refuse him an audience?) and three jabs about getting a bad table at Spago's? Strangely, while Vidal does not hesitate to take on the long-dead biggies, he leaves unscathed major living ones that would fit neatly on his horizon of religious opportunism--Bush 'n Quayle, say, and certain loud ministers and very high prelates.

     There is a marvelous running commentary on metaphors and similes--as Vidal's prose exemplifies his thesis. But there is also surprisingly lax writing. "Anyway's" and "somehow's" recur, along with sentences like: "I remember Ephesus then like yesterday now." And: She was "as lovely as a woman who'll never see forty hurtle by again can be." Nor is Vidal beyond one-liners that would elicit groans from the audience of a stand-up comic. The "Fat Jesus" shrills at Saint: "Why dost thou persecuteth me-th [sic]?" And: "Now you're cooking with Virgin oil," says Timothy at the expectation of meeting a sexy priestess.

     Never mind. When Vidal gets around to delivering on his promise to re-tell the crucial events narrated in the gospels, he is splendid. The revelation that the Fat Jesus is not the real one, that the thin one of lore pulled a fast one on Judas, is only the first of the many twists and turns Vidal's inventive daring takes. The last fifth of this novel is a gem, its last page uproarious.

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