THERE is an old joke Norman Mailer is particularly fond of about a man who is complaining to God. The man whines: "You're not treating me fairly, God. Why not? Why don't you treat me fairly?"
"And the thunder comes down from heaven," Mailer said, anticipating the punch line with a grin. "And God says, `Because you bug me.' "
Mailer told the joke to help explain his own religious beliefs - and the God in his new book, "The Gospel According to the Son." "I've always been religious," he said. "I just have a God that's a little different from others. It's not because I'm special. It's just that it's the only thing that makes sense for me: the notion I have of an imperfect God doing the best that He or She can do. I've found it immensely useful as a religion, because self-pity used to be one of my vices." Hence the joke. This is a powerful God indeed if He (or She) is responsible for transforming Mailer from a self-pitying sort. Now 74, he is among the most ambitious, hubristic, audacious writers (and New Yorkers) of the past half century. In his journalistic and novelistic narratives, he has presumed to enter the minds of contemporary killers and ancient Egyptians, not to mention Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald and Pablo Picasso, among others. At the same time, he has led a public life of a celebrity-like nature, an odd type of self-aggrandizement for a serious writer. He has had six wives and has eight children. Among his famous forays into the headlines: a stabbing attack of his second wife, Adele, in 1960; an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York in 1969; his involvement, in 1982, with Jack Henry Abbott, a writer whose release from prison he helped secure and who subsequently killed a waiter in the East Village. So should anybody be surprised at his latest venture, in which he purports to retell what the writer Fulton Oursler called "The Greatest Story Ever Told"? That is the story of Jesus Christ, of course, which Mailer has set about narrating by the Son of God himself. Finally, the true story of the virgin birth, loaves and fishes, walking on water, the raising of Lazarus, the resurrection, not to mention a coming of age story in which a young man comes to understand his demanding Dad. All this, from a Brooklyn Jew, may be the very embodiment of chutzpah, which Mailer acknowledges as a "vulgar and endearing" quality that is "very much a part of New York." And though he is rounder than he was in his more physically pugnacious days, Mailer maintains his combative quality, his ease with self-defense. "What people don't understand is the power of a novelist," he said. "It doesn't surprise them at all if a surgeon can pull off a marvelous cure, if he cuts into a place in the heart that's never been cut before. They think if a guy's been a professional for 30 or 40 years, he should be good. Well, I've been a novelist for 50 years. I should be good. I should be able to try things that other people can't try. "What people think is the largest dare of all, I think was the only sensible thing to do, and that was writing in the first person. The negative side was obvious. `How dare Norman Mailer! Vanity is vanity, hubris is hubris, but this is passing the point of no return,' and so forth and so on. So let me just assure the New York world - the rest of America will never believe me - that I do not think of myself as Jesus Christ." The new book, he said, was in part a celebration of Jesus Christ as a radical with a conscience. …