Only Mailer had the literary audacity to write a novel that presents the “Greatest Story Ever Told” in 1st person Jesus. We get to read him speaking as a human, this plain carpenter and purported Son of God who broods with anecdotes about his birthright, and ruminates over his own flaws in contrast to the expectations put upon him. This personal narrative voice is distinctly different from the entrenched 3rd person accounts of a perfect and divine Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels according to his top-dog apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Mailer presents the geography and the people with prose mostly free of enigmatic rhetoric. Scenes we all know well, such as conception or manger scene, are easy pickings for Mailer. He brings them alive on the page without flowery verse and stiff vocabulary musty with history and biblical stylistic haze. Even to an agnostic reader, this rendition of the Miracle Story is illuminating, educational, and engaging to read.
With the Devil leading the dialogue department, Mailer portrays Jesus’s meetup with him in the wilderness near the end of J’s 40-day fast. Old Mephisto appears several times, nagging the conscience of The Chosen One.
Mailer creates a heightened role for John the Baptist, who’s a sort of Jesus forerunner, depicting his teachings and influence, his baptism of J in the Jordan, and eventually his imprisonment and death by the hands of the Herod administration. John’s severed head is delivered to the King on a silver platter while Salome dances.
Mailer doesn’t go too far astray in his language. Much is paraphrasing, and he avoids sarcasm and modern lingo.
The first exorcism (vivid) and other various miracles performed are often described in terms of their draining effect on J, who constantly frets over proper appropriation of his super-energies. He tries to protect them, while the mass’s demands and the scribe paparazzi pursue him. A mere unwanted touch of the robe leaves him gassed.
Mailer ratchets up the suspense with a buildup of fear and resentment against J, who flees to hideaways like a shepherd’s shack and then a boat in the Sea of Galilee where he manages to preach in sort of a floating pulpit.
The story picks up pace and intrigue as Jesus selects and grooms his “cabinet” of twelve apostles. He has Personnel problems. Jesus commands them to spread the word and rations them on slivers of bread, so the guys argue about food and develop a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. Finally, Jesus manages to get them under control and on the road to Jerusalem.
There, they display radicalism going into the temple. Defiance of convention. Jesus dresses down the Pharisee moneylenders and wealthy merchants as greedy agents of Mammon. He matches wits with the Master of the Temple, whose name is not provided. There is plenty of angst among the group, as Jesus continues to play things fast and loose with the Romans.
Since Jesus is a clairvoyant at this point and already knows his and others’ fate, the starch comes out of his narration and he hurries toward the crucifixion.
Jesus is humbled by and often at odds with the Father. The question looms as the unhappy ending occurs: Does Jesus eventually fail his Father? Or vice versa? And was the resurrection story a bit of improvised feel-good coverup for a divine tragedy?