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. …