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Dude, Where’s My Messiah?
There should be a special spot in heaven reserved for author Christopher Moore. And if they won’t accept him there—his penchant for four-letter words and ribald sexcapades could prove sticking points at the Pearly Gates—then he should at least be granted a cloudy-soft seat at the big table of modern American satirists. By blending the revisionist history of Mel Brooks’ 2,000-Year-Old Man, the fiendish religion ribbing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the epic randiness of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Moore has created the perversely entertaining, yet still somehow reverent, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. And if this sweet, sprawling tale isn’t an honest-to-God miracle, well, let me just say that it’s pretty fucking close.
With dueling talents for grand-scale storytelling and wickedly precise comic punch, Moore isn’t so much concerned with what was written about Our Lord J.C. after his 30th b-day—that’s been taken care of elsewhere—as with the greatest story never told: about confused Josh of Nazareth and “forgotten” sidekick Biff during their formative teens and 20s. In other words, Moore wants to reveal, once and for all, what really happened to Jesus between “the manger and the Mount.” And, even more crucial, he wants to shine the proper spotlight on previously ignored Biff, Josh’s overeager eyes, ears, and other parts when it comes to tasting forbidden fruits—not to mention the very best friend a messiah could have. (“The first time I saw the man who would save the world,” Biff says by way of introduction, “he was sitting near the central well in Nazareth with a lizard hanging out of his mouth.”)
In interviews, Moore has admitted to atheism. And after reading Lamb, select sensitive sorts—who will no doubt hurl the farcical novel into the fire after perusing, say, Biff’s Page 58 ode to masturbation—will likely call Moore sacrilegious, as well. But although there’s just no sense arguing with true believers, it should nevertheless be noted that Biff, for all his naughty foibles and potty-mouth outbursts, is the embodiment of such Christian values as loyalty and faith. He stands by his buddy no matter how ugly the obstacles, how bleak the predestined outcome. And if Moore’s titular hero—a far more interesting character than that goody-two-shoes water-walker—is not exactly Everyman, then every man should try to be more like him. There: Adult Sunday school is over.
As the friends embark on a globe-traversing road trip to determine if Josh is indeed the Chosen One—the whole healing thing, not to mention celibacy, has Josh totally freaked out—the banter between the buddies is as slang-driven and sex-obsessed as the dialogue in American Pie; boys being boys, no matter what their higher calling might be, there’s plenty of “knob polishing” talk during those grueling pilgrimages to Jerusalem. (Biff is able to spin his tale via contemporary lingo because, lo these many years after his death, he’s been raised from his grave—and sequestered in a cable-equipped American hotel—by the Archangel Raziel to tell what really happened. “The angel guards the remote control like it’s the Ark of the Covenant,” Biff laments.)
The relationship between Moore’s heroes, however, is more than T&A jokes and two-for-flinching horseplay. Instead, the confused Josh, who “has no idea how to go about being the Messiah,” and his wisecracking loyal pal, the “inventor of sarcasm” who protects the physical and emotional states of the “security nightmare” savior, display a genuinely moving partnership that provides far greater narrative momentum than the myriad dick jokes (no matter how funny those myriad dick jokes may be).
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“When your best friend is the son of God, you get tired of losing every argument,” says Biff as he and the carpenter’s “stepson,” still in their early teens, depart police-state Nazareth. The majority of Lamb follows the two young men as they travel far and wide, for some 17 years, to seek out answers from the Three Wise Men (all together now, CCD students: Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior), who are quickly revealed to be nothing more than charlatans; they visited the manger that infamous starry night looking for an unearthly upper hand.
In the concubine-enriched caves of Kabul, the pimpish, bisexual Balthasar is a sleight-of-hand man—after each trick, he grins and says, “Just fuckin’ with you”—who teaches Josh the lessons of the Tao but is far more interested in the young man’s skills at raising the dead. (“I’ll bet he was myrrh,” Josh says of the conniving Balthasar. “Bastard, he brings the cheapest gift and now he wants to sodomize me. My mother told me the myrrh went bad after a week, too.”) In a Chinese monastery, surly Gaspar tries to teach Josh the tranquil lessons of the Buddha—but winds up doing most of the learning himself. And in Calcutta, squatting in a cliffside crevice, yogi Melchior still hasn’t found what’s he’s looking for—actually, he isn’t quite sure what he’s looking for—but he does know the secrets of the Divine Spark, or the ability to turn a little food into a lot, which Josh will later find extremely handy. (India is also where Josh and Biff have a lengthy discussion about what is the more important text: the Bhagavad Gita or the Kama Sutra. Biff’s favorite sexual position? “Readying the Mongoose for Trade-In.”)
Through it all, Biff tries to alleviate his friend’s world-heavy burden—Josh finds out what’s coming but has yet to fully accept his fate—by acting the fool and doing all the very bad things Josh can’t, such as having promiscuous sex, beating the crap outta militant nonbelievers, and having more promiscuous sex. And the teaching process definitely isn’t one-sided: Biff convinces Josh that the world is indeed round (or, as he says, “sticky”), and he even concocts the very first cafe latte, which allows caffeine-junkie Josh to heal people really, really fast. Biff keeps his friend’s ego in check, as well: Josh’s preaching, Biff opines, is “succinct to the point of rudeness, but made more sense after you listened to a few hundred sermons.”
Indeed, bodyguard Biff is a good man; he just isn’t a pure man. Nor does he want to be. In fact, despite Josh’s warnings about pleasures of the flesh, Biff, when he can’t get his hands on the nearest woman (Biff finally realizes Josh’s awesome power when Jesus-to-be cures his pal of the clap), he can’t keep his hands off himself. Herewith, Biff on the beauties of onanism:
Spilling the old seed on the ground. Cuffing the camel. Dusting the donkey. Flogging the Pharisee. Onanism, a sin that requires hundreds of hours of practice to get right, or at least that’s what I told myself. God slew Onan for spilling his seed on the ground (Onan’s seed, not God’s. God’s seed turned out to be my best pal. Imagine the trouble you’d be in if you actually spilled God’s seed. Try explaining that.) According to the Law, if you had any contact with “nocturnal emissions”…you had to purify yourself by baptism and you weren’t allowed to be around people until the next day. Around the age of thirteen I spent a lot of time in and out of our mikveh, but I fudged on the solitary part of penance. I mean, it’s not like that was going to solve the problem.
What the chums talk about most from one adventure to the next is their Nazarene neighbor Maggie, aka Mary Magdalene. Biff is in love with Maggie, but Maggie—forced at an early age into a marriage with an abusive lout—only has eyes for just-say-no Josh. And, don’t you know, it really pisses Biff off that he can’t have the woman of his dreams. Maggie, far from the textual trollop of the Bible, is a strong-willed heroine—think shot-swilling Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark—and ultimately proves to be Moore’s smart, sexy voice of reason. (It’s not giving anything away to say that Moore provides a sweet coda in which Biff, more or less, finally gets what he’s always wanted.)
Indeed, Moore tweaks the reputation of just about every biblical supporting player: John the Baptist is a “psycho” who can’t stop dunking people and is obsessed with “sluts”; the disciples are well-meaning “dumbfucks,” each one endowed with an overt comic quirk. (Nathaniel is not too bright, Bartholomew is averse to bathing and preaches the good word to dogs, etc.) And to counterbalance the many solemn references to What Was Written—thorny crowns, wooden crosses, expectorating Romans—the author tosses in such fantastical elements as a lonely yeti, a Borscht Belt demon, and an elephant that learns yoga.
But the author can only do so much about Josh’s fate: There are some endings you just can’t rewrite. Biff, growing more and more desperate to keep his friend alive, cracks wise and throws punches until the bittersweet finale, doing his damnedest to delay the inevitable, despite Josh’s insistence on suffering for our sins. The moving goodbye between Josh and Biff—religion set aside, friendship between boys-to-men remembered—solidifies Lamb as far weightier than an easy parody. In 400-plus pages, Moore never once resorts to full-on proselytizing, but his comments on the beauty of tolerance are handled with a sly, touching grace. The most important lesson Moore urges the reader to learn is that, in the most dire of times, a sense of humor is just as crucial as a sense of faith. Oh, and that eating bacon should be allowed for everybody. CP