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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
retain our interest in the pre-journey, Vidal does a lot
of literary "tap-dancing" himself--some fancy,
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.)
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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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Original material by John Rechy appears
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