Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Adventures of Jesus Christ, Boy DetectiveThe Adventures of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective by J. Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Adventures of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective

It’s disingenuous to begin a book like J. Bradley’s The Adventures of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective and not expect to wallow in irreverence, so don’t read it if your religious feathers are easily fluffed. Mine are not, so I enjoyed this tale, especially because it works at two levels, one at an unexpected depth, raising incisive questions about our society’s love affair with violence and how it is justified by faith, belief in the unproven and unprovable. As always… no spoilers. ;-)

Some of the reviews point out that there is no cohesion between the beginning of the book and the cases that follow. That’s just wrong. The second half of the book happens because of the geas laid upon Jesus by his father.

The book was good, but not without (in my opinion) flaws, and maybe it’s best I deal with these first, to focus on the positive, so here are my complaints:

(1) Mystery. A twofold problem here… First, the book is written in 3rd person limited omniscient with Timmy as the principal pov character. There are other characters too: God, the Holy Ghost dove, Simon/Peter, Uncle Leopold, Chief Inspector Donaldson, and Marie/Mary. One of the advantages of this strategy is that the narrator can disclose information to the reader to which the characters are ignorant. This is an especially effective device in a mystery, where a good part of the fun is guessing the meaning of the clues before the detective does or watching suspects incriminate themselves. Unfortunately, Timmy/Jesus, is divine and has far more hidden information than ever could be revealed, including access to Timmy’s stored history on his computer. This happens many times, especially in the cases, and it frustrated me because I feel excluded from the crucial part of the whodunit, not because I am outsmarted by Poirot’s little gray cells, but rather that Timmy/Jesus has access to clues I never heard about. Again, this is so part-and-parcel to the idea that Jesus Christ is the detective, right? And maybe the real observation to make is that AJCBD isn’t a detective novel at all, and, in fact, it’s right there in the title: It’s an adventure story, a triptych of Timmy’s adventure with Jesus at the conn. Fair enough, then.
In a few instances, however, we get to watch what was just revealed to one character get revealed to another, using dialogue, and it comes off a bit boring. If I were editing, I would suggest summary instead of dialogue for these instances. There were other minor editing issues (for example, “lighting rod” instead of “lightning rod”), but overall the book is well produced.

(2) Feminine Perspective: Aside from Colleen, I would have liked to see the female characters better developed. There is a real opportunity to use the Marie/Mary angle (in the “Hand of Fate” part), and I confess that I waited for the gut punch, but it never came. This is not a fatal flaw (Tolkien only has one “she” reference in The Hobbit), and you could argue that it reflects the sexist nature of Christianity, but I raise the point, because I felt there was a missed opportunity, just as it would have been cooler to see God be a woman with a punk haircut than a bald middle-aged man. Anyway, I really missed this angle. The “She was chosen” whisperings makes me wonder if this aspect is just well hidden.

Before I begin to discuss what was so pleasurable, I must describe the general layout. Essentially, about the first half of the book is a 7-chapter novella, “Hand of Fate”, that plays out a game of life and death with a demon and a deck of enchanted cards. The second half of the book is a mock purgatory (there is a real Purgatory with an interesting perspective, by the way) where Timmy/Jesus must solve 8 cases, each a bit more disheartening until he/He loses faith in humanity. The final two “cases” are mysteries without tangible solutions and form a conclusion, which I will not discuss further, besides saying that it is a mind boggling table turning.

Statistics: About 54,000 words. Favorite words: kipped, clownery, unsheathes, and clomps.

Now to what worked best for me, and I’m sorry, but I am somewhat constrained here by my no-spoiler rule:

This book isn’t really about Timmy Hightower or Jesus solving cases, although there is quite a lot of that going on. It’s a book about a conflict between God and Jesus about how worthy humanity is. Jesus says this in “Early Bird Gets the Shaft,” a story that explores, shall we say, extreme acupuncture solutions:
“Humans are so desperate to hold onto their mortality, they’ll try anything. My father keeps them good and scared because he needs them to die and from that fear, they create things like Scientology, crystal healing, yoga, acupuncture, things they think will stave off death if they practice them, believe in them hard enough. If they knew the truth, knew of the broken promise that awaits them after they die… until then, my father will continue doing everything he can to make sure they keep missing the mark.”

Jesus maintains a faith in humanity not shared by Jehovah, who true to form is selfish, arrogant, and uncompromising. I liked how this contrast was done, although I would have liked to see a little more of the revolutionary tone of the New Testament.

In truth, when I finally read the Bible cover-to-cover (as an adult), rather than excerpts selected by pedagogues for indoctrination, I was astounded by the contrast in the voices of the Old and New Testaments. That aspect of Jesus’s voice is not captured, though his insurrection is incorporated into the defiance that is the backdrop of the second section of the novel, “Cases.” Until the last two sections of “Cases,” it is Timmy’s inflection that seems dominant, and no attempt is made to incorporate the Thou and Thys. This was probably a good choice for a contemporary audience, and not much is lost, because Bradley still paints the willful nature of Father/God/Jehovah/JVHV/Tetragrammaton and a loving, caring Jesus.

The core of the book is about bringing the real offenders to justice, and I guarantee you that the twist at the end is worthwhile, outrageous, and thoughtful.

What else?

I enjoyed how Timmy Hightower’s world was painted and how his character evolved. Expressions like “rush minute” for the hallways at school made the story realistic. I liked the adolescent tension between Timmy and Carlos, but (again) I think that more could have been done with Marie. I would have enjoyed watching Jesus deal with some adolescent sexual tension. This is more than casual interest because, at one point, Jesus elucidates us on an undisclosed (except perhaps in the Gospel of Thomas) aspect of his life:

“Chief, I was married, despite what you may have read. I never required my followers to be celibate, either. My father, however, believes if his followers aren’t getting laid, then they use that pent up sexual energy to serve his purpose. The means to an end don’t really matter to him, as long as he gets what he wants.”

So, then, I wondered… If Jesus is brought back to humanity to save us, he must have left his wife somewhere, right? I can only imagine how being inside a 12-year-old Timmy with so few opportunities for sexual release (besides the obvious one) may complicate possession. And that led to wondering whether possession includes such hormonal responses. Does an adult who possess an adolescent get the baggage? I maybe shouldn’t be overthinking this?

Anyway, I liked the dialogue here, although (again) I thought there was too much. It did seem realistic.

In general, Timmy’s character is well articulated, and I especially like how, towards the end, we get more Jesus domination as the tension increases.

Another aspect that must be addressed is the chilling vision of modern society that is painted in these cases. The casual violence and the blasé murder of innocents, five here, six there… It is, unfortunately, an accurate enough portrayal of the real world we construct together. Every week we probably traverse the crosshairs of murderers, and our children are often victims.

Until the cases began unfolding, each of them a depiction of human shortcoming, I wasn’t paying attention enough to the background radiation of death and destruction. This is probably because it was so ubiquitous that I didn’t give it weight, but each of these cases resolves into a personal story, almost always involving a horrible end, and—look—the storytelling tone isn’t different. It’s a cant, a bit whimsical, but overwhelmingly disturbing when you realize what is being discussed.

And I think this is where Bradley really succeeds and, by syllogism, also disappoints. If the premise is that God is responsible for all of our violence, that it’s some kind of game to prove humans are unworthy, then we have no agency. That’s the problem with ascribing our choices to divinity. While it apologizes for them, removing us from the blame—I am so sorry I must have sinned—we lose the power to fix, well, anything about our flippant savagery. And while that’s not Bradley’s fault… That’s our fault. It would be nice if we aren’t looking for a way to affix it to anyone but ourselves.

That isn’t what the book is about, though, but it gets my mind there because of the theological questions raised and a clever ploy where Bradley works in the paradox of the Trinity to answer the “Why are you here?” question.

So, is the book hopeful or hopeless? I am going to fill in the “both” response, and I’ll back it up with quotes:

“I have to believe, Leo, I have to keep believing in them or all hope is lost.” (About humanity. Jesus says this.)
“Great reward does not come without great risk. Faith, Peter, remember?” (Jehovah taking a chance on Jesus’s soul.)
“When you are ready to give up on humanity, I’ll let you come home.” (Jehovah setting up the parameters of Jesus’s spell with the humans.)
“Monsters… aren’t born. Moments like this… make them.” (Leopold about why he doesn’t let Jesus murder, so he won’t become like his father.)

Finally, I really liked this expression:

“Motherfuckers back from cresting over his bottom lip.”

Lots of fun! Recommended.

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