Say this for author James Frey: the 2006 dust-up over the veracity of his memoir A Million Little Pieces hasn't spoiled his appetite for a fight. How else to explain the decision to debut Frey's new novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, which depicts Jesus returning to earth as a bisexual, alcoholic drug user, in stores on Good Friday later this week? As one might expect from the book's controversial conceit, the early reviews have been mixed.
- AN Wilson, author of Jesus: A Life, an examination of the historical Jesus, praised the book as "brilliant, brilliant, brilliant" in his Financial Times review. In Wilson's estimation, the book functions simultaneously as "both a work of art and a bombshell hurled at the religious right." The subject matter is tough, but in Frey's hands it is "disturbing in the best possible sense, in the way that Dostoevsky's “Grand Inquisitor” myth is disturbing."
- In The Observer, Peter Conrad offered a wildly different appraisal, lambasting the author as "the product of a culture with a short memory and a skewed moral sense" and "less a writer than a professional celebrity." Were the book any good, that might not matter--it's not. Rather, it is an "artlessly crass in its retelling of what's meant to be the greatest story ever told," made worse by Frey's writing style, described by Conrad as "lumpenly prosaic, unable to conceive of or communicate rapture."
- At The Guardian, Mark Lawson came down somewhere in between the assessments offered by Wilson and Conrad. On the one hand, he's unimpressed by the book's theological arguments and a bit puzzled over Frey's decision to depict "a Jesus who conveniently preaches the values of liberal America--pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion, anti-churchgoing" without ever really explaining "why this figure should have more validity than the historical one being dismissed." It fares better as literature. "As a novel rather than theology...The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is impressively done" writes Lawson. "[T]he alternating testimonies distinctively voiced and the twists on the gospel versions [are nicely judged." It seems "the repentant sinner of non-fiction proves to suit fiction."