Finally, in his 23rd novel, Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal, Gore Vidal has turned to experimental fiction. The experiment is to determine whether Christian fundamentalists have approximately the same boiling point as the Muslim fundamentalists who have bedeviled Salman Rushdie. If they do, Vidal can expect a verdict of blasphemy and perhaps a holy hit squad any day now. This is a novel in which the apostle Paul is portrayed as a fluent liar and active homosexual who recruits his disciple Timothy, the book’s breezily cynical narrator, because of his ”golden hyacinthine curls and cornflower-blue, forget-me-not eyes and the largest d— in our part of Asia Minor.” Paul (or ”Saint,” as Timothy irreverently calls him) takes a show-biz approach to evangelism, accompanying his preaching with tap dancing and juggling and caring more for cash flow than Christian charity. As for Jesus, he is, at least in Paul’s vision ”on the eastbound Jerusalem-Damascus freeway,” grossly fat: ”Wide as He was tall, Jesus waddled toward me… He spoke, His voice so high, so shrill that only the odd canine ever got the whole message.”
This is not, in other words, a subtle satire, and only the odd canine will want to chew as thoughtfully on it as on one of Vidal’s better books — Julian, for instance, in which he made his contempt for Christianity sufficiently clear while shaping a superb historical novel around the 4th-century emperor who tried to revive a dying paganism. The Christian fundamentalists and the Jewish fundamentalists, too, might as well save their anathemas and ammunition. Live From Golgotha is too slapdash to do them any damage, and there may be louder wailing and gnashing of teeth among the heathens who expected something more polished and lethal.
On the other hand, like Vidal’s previous satirical doodles from Myra Breckinridge to Duluth, this one offers some effective offhand mockery of the American scene — in this case our fin de siecle culture of nonstop news, infotainment, computer viruses, TV preachers, New Age vapors, dysfunctional inner children, hustlers, hackers, and holograms. The premise is that an electronics genius has discovered a way of transmitting people and cameras into the past, so that Timothy, in his old age as a married bishop in Thessalonika, is visited by an NBC News executive who plans to televise the Crucifixion live and may want him as anchor. Meanwhile, back in the 1990s, a mysterious computer hacker is retroactively destroying all records of the life of Christ, which means that Timothy’s shockingly candid Gospel — the one we are reading — may be the only one to survive unscathed, if it is unscathed.
The premise requires some laborious explanations of make-believe computer technologies and time warps, but it also allows Mary Baker Eddy, Shirley MacLaine, and other phantoms to wander into the narrative and be skewered. It also sets up some more imposing satirical points. One is that our jumpy, ingratiating, prying TV culture can’t handle events of real gravity. Another is that the grave figures of the legendary past may have been a bit more like us than we care to think. A third is that our incoherent torrent of electronic images is dissolving our cultural memory, and ”memory is all that we are.” But the novel itself is too jumpily incoherent to make a powerful or durable satirical impression. It’s a collection of potshots, many of which overshoot the pot. It can be read for its incidental cleverness — hardly a phrase goes unturned, the latest cliches are corrosively caressed, a few interesting shards of unwarped history turn up. But if you’re looking for a truly disconcerting parody of Christianity, try one of the strutting, preening TV evangelists, a couple of whom are mentioned in this book. B-