THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON By Norman Mailer Random House. 242 pp. $22 MARILYN MONROE, Muhammad Ali, Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, Pablo Picasso -- Norman Mailer is interested in celebrities, or more precisely, in the cultural implications of celebrity and notoriety. In his newest book, he takes on the greatest celebrity of Western civilization, Jesus Christ superstar. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical was innovative, entertaining and theologically provocative. Mailer's book is none of these things; it is a poorly conceived disaster, easily the worst book the man's ever written. I don't like writing negative reviews, nor am I a Mailer-basher -- Why Are We in Vietnam? and The Armies of the Night are two of the best books about the '60s, when Mailer was in his element -- but this new one leaves me no choice. It's that bad. The Gospel According to the Son purports to be Jesus' autobiography. Unsatisfied with the exaggerated accounts given in the gospels and apocrypha, which he has read, Jesus decides to tell his own story. But what follows is basically the synoptic gospels retold in the first person, with a few details borrowed from John. Mailer's version reads like a simplified novelization for grade-school children, or for adults who find the New Testament tough going, even in one of those breezy new translations in a rainbow cover. No attempt was made to flesh out the gospels' bare-boned account with local color or historical background, and the other characters remain as one-dimensional as in the original. Mailer doesn't seem to realize there's a difference between the Jesus of history, a Jewish soothsayer, and the Jesus of the gospels, a mythological figure. Everyone who has written a serious novel about Jesus has tried to recover or imagine what Jesus' actual life might have been like; Mailer just paraphrases the gospels, uncritically accepting the inventions of the anonymous group of storytellers, witnesses, scribes, local pastors, budding theologians and translators who are responsible for the textual mess we now have. Consequently, Mailer's Jesus tells of his family's escape to Egypt when he was a child, though the trip is clearly an invention by later writers who wanted to enforce Jesus' messiah status by having him seem to fulfill the Old Testament (at the top of Matthew's agenda especially). Later Jesus retells the story of Salome's striptease for the head of John the Baptist, a story that was denounced 40 years ago by Robert Graves and Joshua Podro (in their fascinating Nazarene Gospel Restored) as historically absurd and at odds with social customs at the time, as unthinkable as Chelsea Clinton performing the Dance of the Seven Veils at one of her father's political functions. It has been estimated that as much as 82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him, but Mailer has him reciting most of them nonetheless. All this makes nonsense of Jesus' claim at the beginning of Mailer's novel that he'll be telling the true story, free of the gospels' additions and exaggerations. What little Mailer does add to the gospels is of questionable value. He makes Jesus and his family Essenes, a notion discredited by most scholars. He accuses God of being sexist and adds homosexuals to Jesus' earliest followers, both defensible but smacking of political correctness, which I would have thought beneath Mailer. He gives some extra dialogue to Judas, which does no harm, but he spoils Pontius Pilate's famously laconic "What is truth?" by having the Roman governor expand upon his remark. (Later Mailer violates his first-person point of view by recording Pilate's inner conflicts.) Mailer's is an eschatological Jesus, predicting the end of the world within his followers' lifetime, another position discredited by contemporary theologians and one flatly at odds with actual history and even with the conclusion of Mailer's novel. The only controversial element Mailer introduces is Jesus' doubts about his father's omnipotence, an idea first suggested to him by the Devil during the temptation scene in the Wilderness, and which dogs him throughout the novel. On the cross, fearing his father has abandoned him, Jesus gives Pop the benefit of the doubt: "My Father was only doing what He could do. Even as I had done what I could. So He was Truly my Father. Like all Fathers He had many sore troubles, and some had little to do with His son. Had His efforts for me been so great that now He was exhausted?" In the final chapter, apparently set in Heaven in our own time, Jesus notes that his overworked father is still a bit distant: "My Father, however, does not often speak to me. Nonetheless, I honor Him. Surely He sends forth as much love as He can offer, but His love is not without limit . . . Thereby does my Father still find much purpose for me. It is even by way of my blessing that the Lord sends what love He can muster down to that creature who is man and that other creature who is woman, and I try to remain the source of love that is tender." Even as an atheist I'm embarrassed for Jesus to have to mouth such drivel. As this extract shows, the style is modeled on the King James translation (which Jesus quotes from time to time), another bad choice on Mailer's part. The gospels were written in the vernacular, not in an archaic (albeit sonorous) literary language. If Jesus is telling his own story, why would he imitate a 17th-century preacher? Only pious Christians believe the gospels should be rendered in an antique style, complete with capitals for He and Father. Mailer's choice is mystifying. (For an English translation that is faithful to the original, pick up one of the two books produced by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar: The Complete Gospels or The Five Gospels, both in paperback from HarperCollins.) The Gospel According to the Son may make a suitable Sunday school prize, but I can't imagine anyone with more than a high-school education finding this book of interest. For Mailer's detractors, it will be one more nail in the coffin of his declining reputation. His wife, friends, or agent -- all thanked in the acknowledgments -- should have prevented him from making a fool of himself in public like this. Steven Moore has written many books and essays on modern fiction. CAPTION: Norman Mailer