The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, by James Frey
The Second Coming, by John Niven
Cult American author James Frey's new novel is both a work of art and a bombshell hurled at the religious right. It tackles the Second Coming of Jesus in modern America – with the promised Messiah enacting the deeds the religious right consider most wicked. He is, for example, an active bisexual who supports his prostitute girlfriend when she aborts her first child.
In 2006, Frey was exposed as having fabricated parts of his 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces, which purported to tell of his time as a drug addict. In the furor he was publicly lambasted by the previously supportive Oprah Winfrey and dropped by his publisher.
But don't be put off. This book is very good indeed. The story is told through the mouths and eyes of the Messiah's family, his girlfriends, a rabbi, a priest, a federal investigator, all contributing to a picture which is weirdly believable, often extremely moving and sometimes funny.
Ben Avrohom, otherwise known as Ben Jones and Ben Zion, is the child of poor Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn. He was born circumcised – one of the signs of the Moshiach (Messiah) – and there is clearly something extraordinary about him. We find him working as a security guard on a building site where he survives a huge sheet of glass shattering on him from a height. We witness him turning water into wine, and we see several revelations of his divine status that are reminiscent of the stories of the Transfiguration in the Gospels. In a particularly clever passage, he joins a strange group of people who live in the tunnels of New York's subway system with a murderous leader, where they survive on discarded food and where drugs and casual sex are routine.
The cleverness consists in the fact that this is both as hard-edged and suspenseful as a scene from the most disturbing modern crime story, but also an obvious parallel to the caves of Qumran where the community described in the Dead Sea Scrolls are supposed to have awaited the end of the world 2,000 years ago. There are many passages that deserve to find their way into an anthology of wisdom: "If you are to believe in God, you must allow yourself to doubt God"; "Faith is the fool's excuse"; "God plays no part in our lives. God doesn't care about earth or about humanity. God doesn't care about the petty dramas that mean so much to us. God doesn't care what we say or who we fuck or what we do with our bodies or who we love or who we marry".
There will be those who think that James Frey is being deliberately provocative by making the new Messiah sexually promiscuous. But all the sex in the book is justified in terms of the story. Ben's affair with the prostitute Mariaangeles and with the loveless, fat Judith are both gifts of love. Neither woman had ever known love until they met Ben. "Love and laughter and fucking are what make life better," as Ben tells a rather bewildered Catholic priest called Mark, who catches a glimpse of him in the restroom of a midtown Manhattan parish church and knows instantly that he has seen his Transfigured Saviour.
Ben sees that the world is finished, that it has been destroyed by human selfishness, and that the only thing we can do as we await the inevitable destruction of our putrid, selfish society, is to love. This is the message of the book. He tells his followers that there is nothing beyond death, that all religions are bankrupt, as are all governments. We can have no doubt, having read the delicately drawn chapters spoken in turn by a rabbi and a Christian priest, that this is the promised Messiah speaking. He dies with the traditional words from the cross on his lips – "It is Finished" – having been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and having his brain picked to bits by a surgeon (hospital being the modern-day Calvary). Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant: every page is great. Whether you are religious, or bigotedly irreligious, or neither, you will find it disturbing in the best possible sense, in the way that Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" myth is disturbing.
It was bad luck for Scottish author John Niven that he should have published his book The Second Coming at the same time as Frey's masterpiece. Reading Niven reinforces the sense that this sort of story is almost impossible to do well. Hazards that Frey sees ahead and deftly avoids at every turn, Niven jumps into with both feet. Frey knows how the Christian myth-religion – whatever you call it – came into being. He understands the Jewish stuff, and he also understands human nature.
Niven's God – a big executive in an open-plan office above the skies – and his dope-crazed son Jesus are the sort of silly idea you might expect in a student rag. His JC, as he is predictably called, has no mystery about him, as Frey's Ben does. JC is a gormless struggling musician in New York. The main thrust of the narrative, once he appears, is that of a small music band trying to break into the big time. The religious stuff, including Jesus's return to heaven after being judicially killed, is of such excruciating facetiousness that you actually wince for the poor author. "'Ow,' Jesus says, rubbing his chest, 'that hurt, man.' 'Oh, shut your pie-hole,' God says, affectionately slapping his cheek. 'Lethal injection's a walk in the park. Shit, you're lucky you weren't in Virginia or Alabama. They still use the chair there.'"
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.