What to make of this strange, ambitious, near-brilliant piece of ventriloquism from controversial memoirist James Frey? “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible” presents the reader with a knotty exercise in genre disorientation.
The book is, among other things, a vivid re-imagining of the life of Jesus Christ, a pricey quasi-objet d’art from super-gallerist Gagosian, a calculated act of provocation, a gesture of almost stupefying egotism, and a sincere and moving examination of the nature of spirituality. The multiple ironies at hand are potentially disabling.
This book of prophecy, written by one of the most famous liars of our time, is also an ode to the purity of poverty that costs $50, a cry against exploitation by the founder of a notorious digital sweatshop and an expression of hubris from a man ostensibly humbled first by his addiction and then by his very public discrediting.
Forget second acts; Frey is, to contradict F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum about American lives, on the third or maybe fourth act of his deeply checkered career.
Carefully designed and formatted to resemble a traditional Bible — right down to the words of Jesus highlighted in red — “The Final Testament” tells the story of Ben Zion Avrohom, an alcoholic drifter in modern-day New York who undergoes a transformation after he miraculously survives a horrific accident.
When Ben comes out of his near-fatal coma, he is in possession of the same otherworldly powers that the New Testament ascribes to Christ. Is he the Messiah? Ben is evasive on this point, but he brings a sense of serenity and peace to everyone he meets, and he quickly develops a devoted following. His charisma and refusal to acknowledge any civil authority become a threat to the established order, which inevitably leads to a harrowing and suitably mystical end.
Frey has thus taken as a starting point for his book the not especially original but still thought-provoking question of what a contemporary Jesus would be like. His account, like all such exercises, is fundamentally interpretive, emphasizing the elements of Christ’s life and teachings that he values and de-emphasizing those that he has no use for. The historical Jesus’s poverty and lowly associations are fundamental to Frey’s conception, with Ben taking as his companions not the rich and powerful, but the truly marginalized: homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes and criminals.
One of the book’s loveliest sections is the testimony of Judith, a self-described “fat, ugly failure” whose painfully barren existence is transcended by Ben’s ability to love and be loved. “That feeling of being alone,” she recalls, “always alone, truly and deeply and horribly alone, disappeared.”
The central force of Frey’s conception of Christ, however, lies in Ben’s rejection of the hierarchies of organized religion, which he calls “a beautiful con . . . the longest-running fraud in human history.” Not for him such worn-out and repressive concepts as the afterlife, prayer, the soul, sin and indeed the whole concept of faith in general.
“Faith,” Ben says, “is the fool’s excuse. . . . Faith is what you use to oppress, to deny, to justify, to judge in the name of God. . . . If there were a Devil, faith would be his greatest invention.” In this, he sounds almost like a pop-psych version of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, destroying Christ in order to save Christianity, except, of course, without the blazing poetry and magisterial sense of dread.
Instead, Ben’s contempt for religion takes on the aspect of an energetic if somewhat repetitive polemic. He emphatically rejects any constraints that are based on literalist readings of Scripture, saying that “the Bible is a book. Books are for telling stories. They’re not for denying people the right to live as they choose.”
There’s a fish-in-a-barrel element to this, of course; the novel’s villain is Ben’s brother Jacob, who has become in the years of Ben’s wanderings the worst kind of narrow-minded, born-again preacher: bigoted, homophobic and inflexible.
In reaction, Ben emphasizes the holiness of love, which in his teaching turns out to mean limitless sexual partners of both genders, all the time. Few people would disagree with Ben’s rejection of the hatred and divisiveness that so often accompany religious dogma, but to counter that with an explicit mandate to start your engines for a rolling, never-ending orgy is its own kind of tyranny.
Exegesis aside, though, “The Final Testament” is a strong and absorbing piece of writing. Frey’s prose seems to have undergone a miraculous transformation of its own: The surly, stunted posturings of “A Million Little Pieces,” so one-dimensional and limited as to be close to parody, have been replaced by an exceptionally expressive range of voice.
The men and women who offer testimonies about their experience with Ben include doctors, cops, lawyers, priests, rabbis, drug addicts and homeless men, and they are almost all endowed with remarkable authenticity, their voices convincingly and realistically inhabited.
These variegated narratives, sketched with incisive psychological acuity, give “The Final Testament” its own weird integrity. Through these voices, Frey has made an honest attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus to their radical conclusions; in doing so, he has created a chronicle that, despite its contradictions, moves to its own inner spirit.
Lindgren is a writer and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.
THE FINAL TESTAMENT OF THE HOLY BIBLE
By James Frey
Gagosian. 400 pp. $50