Jesus, Joseph and Mary O’Hoolihan — the Figueroa Press has reissued A. J. Langguth’s Jesus Christs!
It has barrel-aged for thirty years and luxuriates the palette as a smoky peat of vapor rising from the crystal of its song. Had the Iceman a sacristy’s Chablis he’d raise a brimming cup to the author’s reverie. This is a novel to savor — saviors to savor! The Word made flesh and the flesh made words.
Let it be noted that the novel is novel in construction. Over a hundred vignettes comprise the whole and vary in length from a few lines to a final reflection of forty pages. Let it also be said that it is falling off your ass funny! The Iceman is well familiar with that inelegant repose and so knows well of what he speaks.
Each of these stories concerns Jesus Christ. Each of the characters is Jesus Christ. This is a Hindu-Christian drama. Brahman dismembers himself into the world, forgets that he has done so and then amuses himself in the terror and bliss of his remembrance..
Mr. Langguth has taken a page from the Gospel of Thomas. His Christ has the ubiquity of Spinoza’s Substance and the Hindu’s pantheon of teaming millions. Thomas knew the breadth of such a spirit:
There is nothing hidden that will not be made manifest … pickup a piece of wood and you will find me there … When you make the two one … then you will enter the kingdom.
This, of course, makes for a loopy tale for those outside the loop. God is not only the Supreme Being but also the Supreme Tautology. Jesus, at his most human, which is to say when he is most like thee and thine, is only tangentially aware of the joke of which he is author.
In the first four lines of text, he tells an old man that he has come to die for his sins. The old man replies, “then what am I to die for?” Here, at the book’s inception, Langguth suggests that not only do we die for our own sins but, like Christ crucified, die for every other. Only in the tale of Tim Finnegan and his many-peopled Wakedoes a beginning of such brevity possess such gravity and gait — and Langguth is funnier than Joyce.
Jesus is rich man, poor man beggar man, thief,
Have I told you about the time that I stole the money? Something came over me. Isn’t that the expression?
In another fragment, a murderous Prince declares to Christ, “We are one man you and I.”
In still a third, a man of corpulence and wealth, whom Jesus takes to be Satan, responds when a disciple calls out Jesus’ name.
“And all this time,” the fat man said wheezing and wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, “I thought you were the Devil.”
Langguth combines the spiritual subtlety of Borges with the comic ferocity of Joseph Heller. Many of the stories are familiar from the Gospels. It is as if Groucho Marx penned a fifth to view aslant the celebrated four.
Absurdities abound throughout the text, but when it comes to the death of Mary Magdalene the author writes with a tragic turning of the tone. Christ arrives at a modern hospital on the last day of her life. She is drugged and comatose. Tubes extract fluids from her mouth and nostrils. Jesus’ mother asks her son to comfort the dying woman with tales of promised glory. Jesus is hesitant. He looks in the blankness of her failing eyes and sees nothing. His mother persists. She puts questions to her son as if they were ones the Magdalene might urgently wish answered.
Will we all be united once more in the mansions of heaven? Will we find together the peace that has escaped us on earth? Will we be ushered into the presence of God our Father? … And all our doubts will be forgotten, and all our despair will be forgotten, and death will never be able to touch us again.”
Jesus looked to the bed where the eyes were open but the chest still.
“Will the beauty of God’s love fill our souls?” Mary reached forward to lower the girl’s eyelids. “Will the joy of knowing God make all the misery our lives look insignificant? Will God’s glory at last make each of us glorious?”
She was still talking when Jesus went out the door.
One of the most sacred texts in Mahayanna Buddhism is the Avatamsaka Sutra. In it the pilgrim Sudhana seeks enlightenment at the feet of fifty-two cosmic masters. He wants to become a Bodhisattva — one who possesses the insight of a Buddha but who remains among men to assuage their suffering and assist their enlightenment.
Sudhana visits a group of prisoners, condemned for the notoriety of their crimes. He wonders if there is any hope for this human refuge. “Oh yes,” replies his master. “These are the Buddhas of the next incarnation.
At a similar juncture in Jesus Christs, Jesus is in prison. His jailer is tempted to take him on a tour of the facility. “We have a cell filled with men who think they are Jesus Christ.” Jesus replies, “They might be right … I would not be surprised to meet myself here, and when you began to speak so urgently to me, I wondered whether you were a Christ.”
At the end of the Avatamsaka, Sudhana discovers that the men and women he desired to assist have already arrived in Nirvana — they are each Bodhisattvas attempting to assist Sudhana to his goal.
Compare that sentiment with this passage from the work we’re considering:
We think we do everything for others. But it’s only that the others know what is best for us.
Langguth’s book is a blasphemy and a kick in the pants of those who believe there is only one Christ and he belongs to them. Jesus Christs was written to suggest the contrary. If we fail to find Christ among our fellows and fail to find the features of his face within each silvered mirror — then crucifixion is the promised end.
This book is a lovely and brilliant first novel. As the Iceman pours the remnant of his Scotch he imagines the author musing that the tome is one in which he is well pleased. He further imagines that his saltines and Single Malt are a sacrament and that the pages reviewed serve nicely as a holy text. As the Iceman lurches towards sobriety and the dawn, he salutes the resurrection of A.J. Langguth’s Jesus Christs.