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Summer Books

TV's comely Gerry covers the crucifixion

By Grayson Warren Brown
Crossroad, 226 pages, $13.95 paperback


Some novels are timid successes. This one is a brave failure. A lot of writers have tried to retell the Jesus story. A few have done it in modern garb. Grayson Warren Brown dares to chance it both ways. Instead of going back in time, he brings the Roman Empire into the information age. Roman soldiers wear tunics and swords, ride horses and have answering machines.

The back cover says the "two times are kept separate and yet are one, just as they are when we read the gospel accounts. Something magical happens." Trouble is, the two times are neither separate nor one, and the magic never happens. Most of the anachronisms do not work. Some are so absurd they stun even the most willing suspension of disbelief: Soon after Jesus is crucified, a Roman army commander is riding to investigate the circumstances of the prophet's death. To bolster his wavering sense of duty, he recites out loud some lines from Milton's Paradise Lost (17th century, remember). Presumably, Paradise Regained was available to him as well. He should have read that and saved himself a lot of investigating.

So what's going on? Geraldine Simmons, a veteran network television reporter, has just returned to New York after an extended assignment in the Middle East. At 47, she is "tall, athletic, and strikingly beautiful" and can still turn the heads of men half her age. (This is indeed the Andrew Greeley school of fiction, but without the sex. Give me old Andy anytime.) While Gerry, as she is called, is lounging in her apartment musing over how she had to "overcome her good looks" to be taken seriously as a reporter -- on network TV? Yeah, right -- her news director calls her into the office. A big story is breaking in the Middle East. The Romans have executed Jesus by nailing him to a cross. That night Gerry finds herself on the 11:26 flight from New York to Judea. (Israel does not exist, of course. With his arcane sense of history, maybe Brown should be writing PR for Bibi Netanyahu.)

In Judea she goes to a news conference led by a Roman investigative officer named Vitellius Marcus. Marcus is a dedicated soldier with high ambitions. Gerry knows him from before and is attracted to his solidity and rugged good looks, but, rest assured, nothing beyond a farewell drink at the airport a few days later ever comes of it. In fact, apart from a late-night interview in a sleazy part of town with a member of the Jewish council who turns out to be Joseph of Arimathea (you will remember him from the gospel accounts), Gerry pretty much disappears from the novel until somewhere near the end.

Meanwhile, Commander Marcus takes over the book. He is assigned by a high Roman official, Lucius Sejanus, to investigate the execution of Jesus. Sejanus is based on the Roman officer who actually headed the famed Praetorian Guard in Jesus' day -- a ruthless ideologue who would have been at home with Hitler, only Brown elevates "his legendary demeanor even a step higher" (as he puts it in his preface) and turns him into something of a Darth Vader. The allusion to "Star Wars" is apropos: Brown's anachronism is rocketed into the fictional future, and Sejanus blasts free of reality and takes his place among the stars.

So, filled with foreboding, Marcus mounts his horse and seeks out the first target of his investigation, Antoni Demetrius, his old friend and mentor. Demetrius, it turns out, is the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his son. Where did that faith come from in that scarred and bemedaled warrior? Demetrius had seen Jesus give sight to a man who had no eyes -- not to a man whose eyes were blinded, but to a man who had no eyes. Demetrius has come to believe that Jesus actually was the son of God, and casting that kind of allegiance toward anyone other than the emperor might be treasonous in Rome's eyes. Marcus, spinning in a moral quandary, becomes something of a brooding Hamlet, flung from pillar to post, duty to devotion, loyalty to light.

Fictionally, the scene with Demetrius is the best in the book. Demetrius comes closer to a fullness of life than any character in the novel. Yet, as his night with Marcus churns on, he too succumbs to the speechmaking that plagues so much of this book. Brown is exploring the political, cultural, social and religious conflicts surrounding, informing and inspiring the death of Jesus. He tackles noble themes such as the nature of power. But too often what he learns is spouted by cartoon characters with speech bubbles ballooned to bursting. There is little description, almost no sense of place and scant character development. Narrative tension is nil. Sometimes you wonder if all these characters -- who have access to the likes of Milton, Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mario Puzo -- didn't sneak off somewhere and read the New Testament. That would sure have sapped the suspense.

Give Brown his due, though. By first tying history into knots, he is able to unravel real events and weave them in with the past. Thus members of the emperor’s council, ever trying to find the right “spin” (yes, they use the term) to explain Rome’s execution of Jesus, are able to conjure up Watergate and Irangate to show that theirs is not the only bumbling empire around. It also allows Pilate, the Roman governor in Judea, to roast the U.S. press for wailing over the three hours Jesus spent dying on the cross: “Meanwhile, in their country, those poor bastards [on death row] suffer 10 years waiting to die, and we are the brutes of history while they are civilized.” Score one for Pilate. Sometimes this anachronistic nonsense can be fun.

Jesus never appears directly in this novel, and that is one of Brown’s major points. The prophet’s power reaches those who never met him in person, and the pull of that power strengthens even in the first hours after his death. Lord knows where it will lead in the years to come.

The climax comes, of course, with the discovery of the empty tomb. What could have happened to the crucified body? Another tough old Roman veteran of foreign wars, this one a sergeant who quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson and talks in terms of light years, tells Marcus that maybe Jesus did rise from the dead. “Once the possible becomes impossible, then the impossible might just be possible,” he says. Read the book if you want to know how Marcus resolves that one. Gerry, meanwhile, has been called back to New York to cover something in the Bronx.

A cover note describes Grayson Warren Brown as an accomplished musician and recording artist. Jesusgate is one of the first novels in Crossroad’s new fiction program. It is always good to see a publisher venture into fiction, especially in these days of bottom-line book publishing. But maybe Brown should stick to music and Crossroad should find a fiction editor.

Tim McCarthy is a fiction writer and journalist living in New Hampshire.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997