June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

by Norman Mailer

It would be easier, one would think, for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Norman Mailer to write a novel about Jesus without involving the son of God in at least one sex act, or at least a little lusting in the heart. But Mailer manages the feat, and more’s the pity. His Jesus is a curiously sterile figure.

Not only does Mailer shy away from Jesus’ carnal urges, he also avoids a crucial issue that anyone examining Jesus’ life ought to confront: how Jesus dealt with his divinity. Even though Mailer envisions Jesus having been forewarned—through some unexplained mechanism—of his suffering and death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, Jesus never seriously ponders the meaning of this momentous event.

Writing in the first person as Jesus, Mailer rarely strays from the New Testament in chronicling the life of the carpenter from Nazareth, nor—sensibly—does he try to outwrite Matthew, Mark, Luke or John as he retells their familiar tales.

The novel’s most striking sequence is a dialogue between Jesus and Satan, who snorts like a horse at one point. As Mailer writes, ” ‘Your father,’ said the Devil, ‘… does not even have the power to command His own Jews in their own land even though so many see him as the only One. You would do better to consider the breadth of His rages; they are unseemly for a great god…. Whereas I confide to you that a hint of disobedience and a whiff of treachery are among the joys of life, and are to be ranked with its spoils rather than its evils.’

” ‘That is not so,’ I [Jesus] was able to answer. ‘My Father is God, and of many dimensions and of all dimensions.’ But my words tasted like straw.”

That highly spirited exchange suggests how much more fascinating this novel might well have been had Mailer not demurred with such uncharacteristic timidity in the face of his supremely imposing protagonist. (Random House, $22)

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