Reviewer James Broderick, Ph.D: James is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is the author of six non-fiction books, and the novel Stalked. His latest book is Greatness Thrust Upon Them, a collection of interviews with Shakespearean actors across America. Follow Here To Listen To An Interview With James Broderick.
Author: Duncan Whitehead
Publisher: Dog Ear Publishing
The Greatest Story Ever Told is also one of the most frequently re-told stories. The Bible is the Urtext of innumerable variations and mutations of moral fables that continue to update, expand, interpret, or even satirize the God-human relationship.
That last bit is the trickiest, definitely. Humor is always a dicey proposition, most especially in print, when one doesn’t have the benefit of gesture, intonations, facial expressions, or any of the other tools of the stand-up comic or the film actor. (For proof of this theorem, just read the screenplay for any Charlie Chaplin film. They read more like the instructions to assembling IKEA furniture than a classic comedy routine – yet we watch, and we laugh.)
It is a brave writer who undertakes a book-length humor work, and a braver one still who aims his barbs at religion. But that is what Duncan Whitehead has done in his novel The Reluctant Jesus, a book whose plot can pretty much be summed up by the title. To dig a little deeper, the title character is a 32-year-old Jewish architect and Yankees fan living in Greenwich Village in 1999 whose safe-but-satisfying life comes to an abrupt halt when he discovers that he’s been chosen to lead the battle for the forces of righteousness as Armageddon approaches.
Whitehead has made an even riskier choice by choosing to write mostly in the genre of farce. Rather than have his protagonist merely think he is Jesus redux – a believable situation that allows the humor to flow from the reactions of his family, co-workers, and society in general to his newly anointed status – Whitehead goes all in: God is a major character in the book, one who misreads memos, has spells of forgetfulness, talks through cats and cockroaches, struggles with mastering Microsoft office applications, and pals around with Satan. (We even get a goofy glimpse of Heaven, which resembles a board of directors meeting with a sullen, resentful Jesus, a laconic, austere Gandhi, and a self-deprecating Joan of Arc.) In taking this approach to his material, Whitehead has given himself an almost impossible, or at least contradictory, task. For a novel to succeed, a reader must be willing to suspend disbelief for several hundred pages. For instance, we know we’re not really on the deck of the Pequod with Ahab, or on the moors with Heathcliff, but we’re willing to pretend that we are. That’s the magic of fiction.
Farce – fiction’s flatulent cousin – generally succeeds in shorter spurts. We’re willing to laugh at outrageous situations, but because suspension of disbelief is almost impossible given the reality-defeating circumstances of farce, the jokes can grow tiresome if carried on too long (Woody Allen is a master of written farce, as is James Thurber; both succeed wildly in the short form but rarely attempted anything longer than sketch-length).
So does The Reluctant Jesus succeed? The answer is a Solomon-like verdict: in parts. The first couple of chapters of the book are written in a style of almost strict verisimilitude, not at all farcical, as we get the facts of our protagonist’s daily life. He has job worries but also successes, has issues with his parents, and struggles with daily life in Manhattan. It’s written in sober, conversational, prose. Not a lot happens. Until something quite extraordinary happens, that is, and that’s when the story gains a wee bit of momentum, though the first half of the book is kind of an uneasy hybrid between the outlandish and the ordinary. God’s conversations provide the outrageousness. Seth (the protagonist) provides the ordinary. The absurd things that result from Seth’s regular interactions with God are pretty funny – Whitehead has real wit – but I found it hard to go back and forth between the intersecting modes of “clearly-this-couldn’t happen” farce and “life as usual” standard storytelling.
The book really hits its comic stride when Satan enters the picture – NOW we’re in the realm of full-fledged farce. Both God and Satan make their presence known in very real ways in Seth’s world, and Satan especially becomes a figure of great comedic brio. (Having the actual Satan attend Comic Con and go virtually unnoticed is a stroke of satiric brilliance.) As has happened so often in literary history, Satan and his minions steal every scene they’re in (it’s what literary scholars call the “Milton problem”; Paradise Lost was supposed to glorify God, but Satan gets all the good lines). But again – at least for me – there’s a limit to how long I’ll hang in for a conceit that is totally absurd and unrealistic, no matter how comic. And when the narrative returned to the world of Seth and his friends, hanging out in bars, dealing with their increasingly problematic lives in sober prose, the juxtaposition between the two modes of storytelling seemed a bit jarring.
But God bless Duncan Whitehead for at least trying to bring more guffaw than awe to the staid Biblical story template. Readers familiar with the sacred text know well that the Old Testament and the New Testament have always resided uneasily together, yoked together more as a historical convenience than an organic work of literature. I suppose it’s something of a tribute to say that The Reluctant Jesus follows much the same design.