ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In 1949, the popular writer Fulton Oursler published "The Greatest Story Ever Told," a fictional account of the life of Jesus. It became the 1965 George Stevens movie starring Max Von Sydow. Norman Mailer has also retold the story. And now Anne Rice, one of the most stylistically gifted horror writers of our time, has given "The Greatest Story" a try. Alan Cheuse has a review of Rice's "Christ the Lord," which has made the best-seller list.
ALAN CHEUSE reporting:
Anne Rice's Jesus is a precocious, pre-pubescent young Jewish boy. `I was seven years old,' he says in the opening line of his own story. Though he makes miracles from the first page onward, there doesn't seem to be much he can do about her prose. `The wind picked up,' he tells us. `The smell of the sea was suddenly clean and wonderful and it caught at our hair and was cool on our faces. We were really leaving Egypt behind and I wanted to break down and cry like a baby.' Then he says, `I ate some more of the bread and sauce.' He says of his mother, `She took all the bread and the sauce and got up and went out.'
Dip your own bread anywhere on any page and you'll find the language this clunky and always falling short of the great subject the writer has taken on, as when King Herod's palace goes up in flames in a fire set by radical Jewish arsonists. `It was a great, growing, licking blaze,' Jesus says, `and suddenly a wall of flame rose up so fierce and it seemed to reach for the stars of heaven. I turned my head. I couldn't look at it. I went into wild crying. The cries came out of me like knots in a rope being pulled out one after another.'
That's the dull, ordinary way he speaks throughout this entire novel. Unfortunately, along with the bloodsucking immortals and other such creatures of the night, Anne Rice seems to have put aside much of the hypnotic prose style and idiosyncratic sense of character that's made her horror books so appealing. The result is an earnest mess of pottage, ill-conceived, ill-wrought and--worst sin of all--quite boring. I say these awful things in a desperate hope I'm not throwing the baby out with the holy water. No novel can be so bad as to shake the faith of millions upon millions, but this one comes awfully close.
SIEGEL: The book is "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" by Anne Rice.
Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
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