Vidal's 'Golgotha' takes liberties most outrageous with Crucifixion

October 11, 1992|By Ann Egerton

LIVE FROM GOLGOTHA. Gore Vidal. Random House. 225 pages. $22. If you didn't like the controversial movie of a few years ago, The Last Temptation of Christ," you'll hate Gore Vidal's novel, "Live From Golgotha." Mr. Vidal, in his smirky telling of the Crucifixion of Christ, has taken some liberties with this part of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Let's see: Jesus, or the one we think is Jesus, has a serious weight problem, and after he drove the economists and arbitragers out of the Temple, he lowered the prime rate, infuriating Rome. This, we're told, was the real reason for the Crucifixion. Saint Paul is a chronic liar and a tireless homosexual, and Timothy, who narrates the chronicle, is an adulterer and bisexual, sought by both sexes, he boasts, for his cornflower blue eyes and his blond hyacinthine curls. Simon Peter, the Rock the Church, is so called because he is Simple Simon, dumb as a rock.

Gore Vidal flirts with being the Salvador Dali of literature. With several excellent exceptions, such as his historical novels about America and some of his essays, he is a little more outrageous with every effort and seems to be happiest when he is shocking or offending the reader.

The Dali comparison to this book seems valid when one thinks of the artist's "Persistence of Memory," the painting of the melting watches. The watches (ergo time), noted the late art critic John Canaday, "have been bent to the artist's will." In "Live From Golgotha," Mr. Vidal bends time to his will through somersaults from A.D. 96 to the present and points in between. Toward the book's end we go to the taping of the Crucifixion in A.D. 33. The Resurrection has a Japanese spin.

There is plenty to offend in "Live From Golgotha," which is Mr. Vidal's 23rd novel (not counting the arch little mysteries that he writes under another name.) The premise of the book is that, due to a breakthrough in computer software, NBC (Nuclear Broadcasting Company) is rushing back in time to tape the Crucifixion for a TV special that will surely boost the network's ratings. But "The Hacker," the mysterious wielder of a pernicious computer virus, is destroying the other records of the Gospel.

The destruction of the tapes can occur retroactively, obliterating all the copies of the Gospels that have been published and distributed in the last nearly 2,000 years. Timothy, who is to anchor the Crucifixion for NBC, is getting his information about the threatened destruction of the tapes via visions from 1992 on a television set that has just appeared in his A.D. 96 domicile. The visions step out of the Sony TV first as holograms and then in the flesh. Then Timothy, the last hope for an accurate account of the Crucifixion, suddenly goes blank and can't remember a thing.

In the meantime, there is a spirited struggle among Jews and Gentiles over the merits of circumcision, and two Dr. Cutlers make mischief. Mr. Vidal weaves much sniggering sexual innuendo -- especially homosexual -- into this rather tedious and heavy-handed satire; he takes us beyond innuendo when Nero rapes Timothy. He adds anacronistic cameo appearances from Mary Baker Eddy and Shirley MacLaine and Oral Roberts, allusions to CNN programs, comments on modern film-making techniques and late 20th century business shenanigans. Then it's back to the baths of Ephesus and to ancient Rome, where the ladies were converting to Christianity because they had nothing better to do.

All of this is told in Mr. Vidal's distinctive tone, which manages to be both jaded and jaunty. The point of these convoluted acrobatics through time seems to be that we have misused technology -- television, computers, holography, fax machines -- and allowed it to diminish us all. The more sophisticated our technology and the more driven our marketing becomes, the baser and sillier we become.

But Mr. Vidal is base and silly while making his point. Not only is he like Dali, but like the girl with the curl; when he is good, he is very good, but when he is bad, he is horrid. In the oft-repeated words of the author himself, I can't think why.

Ms. Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

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