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King Jesus Book Review - Lunchtime Lit With Mel Carriere

Reviewer Mel Carriere is a confessed book thief, who somehow wriggled through the background check net to get a job at the post office.

King Jesus, by Robert Graves, is a book that can't make up its mind.

King Jesus, by Robert Graves, is a book that can't make up its mind.

Literary Larceny Revisited

Literature can be a larcenous enterprise. In the interests of getting his or her literary rocks off, a devoted reader will often resort to theft, without shame. A good book is like Fentanyl, you do what you gotta do to keep up your supply.

I have stolen several books from my oldest son. He is like my dealer, when you get right down to it. Instead of paying, I sneak books out of his room while he is sleeping. I always promise to bring them back, but after 30 or 40 lunches inside my dusty postal vehicle, being subjected to a combination of sandwich splatters, yogurt drippings, and Cheetos stains, they are rendered unreadable. Nobody wants them back in that condition, so it's the same as theft. You take the book for a joy ride, then you ditch it.

On the subject of theft, being a mailman let's me check out the good stuff in everybody's front yard. It's sort of like being a licensed peeping Tom, you can tell a lot about what people do behind closed doors by the clutter on their front porch. There's a lot of good swag there for the picking too, and this includes books. Since the statute of limitations is probably expired, I'll go ahead and confess that I have stolen a book off a front porch. Hey - it was piled in a cardboard box, obviously on its way to Goodwill or even to some trash heap. I saw one I liked, so I took it. The poor book was condemned to death row, so I prefer to say I liberated it.

But just like other forms of crime, in Literary Larceny your karma eventually comes back to kick you in the butt. This happened to me around 1989, when I lent the books I Claudius, and Claudius The God, by Robert Graves, to a Navy shipmate named Mott. Damn good books, I really loved them, and I thought Mott would enjoy them too. But that Mother-Effer Mott never brought them back. Even worse, I don't think he read them either. I will pardon a thief if I think they got some good use out of the things they stole, but if the books wind up collecting dust on some shelf, getting chewed on by Mott's moths, then eventually getting tossed into the scrap heap, that's an unforgivable sin.

Maybe it's time to turn the page on my pilfered books, but 31 years later I have still not forgotten. I am still looking for that mother-effer Mott. If you have any tips, please call the Lunchtime Lit hot line. Virtue is its own reward, so don't expect any monetary compensation.

My search for that mother-effer Mott led me to my local Goodwill store, where I thought I might catch him trying to pawn off my property. Turns out he wasn't, but I did see another book by Claudius author Robert Graves on the shelves, called King Jesus. No, I am not above stealing a book about Jesus either, but this time I actually paid good cash money. I was thinking that since I Claudius was so darn good, Grave's lightning might strike twice. It turns out it didn't. If you, Mr. mother-effing Mott, choose to steal this one from me too, I'll leave it out in plain sight, where your sticky fingers can grab it easily.

Roman Emperor Claudius, who was famous even before Robert Graves wrote about him in I Claudius.

Roman Emperor Claudius, who was famous even before Robert Graves wrote about him in I Claudius.

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Mel moved to Colorado while preparing this article. He absconded with this book across state lines, probably a felony. In spite of the change of venue, Lunchtime Lit reviews are covered by the same laws in both states, CA and CO. The reviewed books are authorized for reading only on Mel's half hour postal lunch break, never to be stolen away for illegal reads at home. Hopefully that mother-effer Mott is safely incarcerated somewhere in California, on the other side of the hump, where he can't get his rapacious paws on Mel's books anymore.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * ** ***

BookPagesWord CountDate StartedDate FinishedLunchtimes Consumed

Death Is A Lonely Business

276

79,200

12/12/2019

1/15/2020

17

Origin

632

158,050

1/16/2020

2/26/2020

25

The Casual Vacancy

503

162,152

2/27/2020

4/13/2020

30

Thy Tears Might Cease

592

207,375

4/14/2020

6/26/2020

41

Every Man Dies Alone

500

194,500

6/27/2020

8/20/2020

29

The Three Body Problem

390

118,450

8/22/2020

10/1/2020

21

King Jesus

413

182,530

10/2/2020

1/13/2021

36

*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total.

**Twenty-seven other titles, with a total estimated word count of 6,272,207 and 975 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

*** If it took me so long to read this one, I apologize. I was going through hell moving to Colorado and spent a lot of lunches doing for others what they cannot do for themselves, while getting no thanks for it.

Claudius vs. Jesus, Slamdown In The Octagon

I enjoy a good tale of the Christ. It's a beautiful story that never gets old. You can be a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist, but you're still going to cry at the end of Ben Hur, I'll bet. Billy Bob's Bad Santa even cried, reading the Christmas story.

I don't even mind a heretical spin on the subject. I laughed out loud when the Jesus and Pals talk show came out on South Park, and laughed louder when Jesus took on Santa there in the cardboard-cutout Colorado snow, mano a mano, a battle that resulted in Kenny getting killed, for the first time. I didn't rend my garments like others did when The Last Temptation of Christ caused such a stir. It doesn't mean I subscribe to these apocryphal versions of the story, it just means that if you're going to tell a tale that goes against the accepted, sanitized version, make it good.

So my biggest beef with King Jesus wasn't blasphemy, but rather that the terrific, timeless tale was transformed into something of a yawner. The author's I Claudius was filled with pulse-pounding, page-turning drama and intrigue. King Jesus was a long-winded anthropological treatise about the mythology of Christ, disguised as a novel so you'll buy it, or steal it, depending how desperate and loathsome you are, like that mother-effer Mott. In the afterword of the novel, Robert Graves claims he could have written a non-fiction book several times longer than the novel to justify his non-canonical view of the gospels. Maybe he should have, just to spare novel readers the agony.

Jesus and Santa going mano-a-mano in South Park's cardboard-cutout Colorado snow.

Jesus and Santa going mano-a-mano in South Park's cardboard-cutout Colorado snow.

Immaculate Deception?

The long and short of the novel King Jesus is that Jesus is the grandson of Herod the Great, a tyrant who killed his son, Jesus's real pop, in the murderous fugue of paranoia that also resulted in the massacre of the innocents. The novel's explanation of how Jesus's mother Mary was impregnated by Antipater, the oldest male child of Herod the Great, really went over my head. Let's just say the conception probably wasn't immaculate. Maybe it happened by osmosis, maybe it didn't. Difficult to believe that Mary, a humble woman who married a carpenter, could make it close enough to the orbit of Prince Anitpater to spark a love affair with him. This is only one of several difficult propositions Graves expects us to believe, just because he is Robert Graves, and we are not.

And herein lies one of the biggest problems with King Jesus. The book can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a secular retelling of the gospels, fashioning Jesus as the legitimate heir to the Herodian throne, or if it should depict Christ as some kind of benevolent spirit that wanders the planet. The dichotomy between the two, as presented by Robert Graves, makes the book's thesis a little hard to swallow.

Should a novel even have a frickin' thesis, by the way? I could have accepted the secular version as fair game, an historical re-examination of the greatest story ever told. I have my faith, but faith is just that, a belief system. The devout among you might argue otherwise, but I don't think that faith requires a thinking man or woman to turn off their God-given brains. But Graves doesn't approach the story as a hard historical reboot, instead he wanders around in some namby-pamby neutral territory, producing an insipid mixture of secular and spiritual. Perhaps he was attempting to cool down the outrage of 1946 readers, in an era much more pious than our own.

Did King Herod murder Jesus's real pop in the paranoid fugue that also resulted in the massacre of the innocents?

Did King Herod murder Jesus's real pop in the paranoid fugue that also resulted in the massacre of the innocents?

Graves Digging

One bad book does not crash a career. Robert Graves was one of those remarkable English novelists of the early twentieth century who had a profound intellectual background, but could also spin a pretty good yarn. When discussing others in that generation of uber-educated British authors, one JRR Tolkien comes to mind. Like Tolkien, Graves was a language guru. He had a superb grasp of ancient Latin and Greek, and even translated classical texts from those dead tongues. He was also a first rate poet. In fact, his critics claimed that when interpreting the ancient myths he relied too much on poetry, and not enough on pedagoguery. According to his detractors, his major fault was believing in the spirit, rather than the letter of the myth.

As such, Robert Graves had, and has his naysayers, but who doesn't? I am certainly not one to throw out the baby of I Claudius out with the bathwater of King Jesus. I would accept his liberties with the Christ tale as just that, liberties, if Graves himself presented them that way.

But critics much more knowledgeable than this tired old hack have crucified King Jesus more mercilessly than I. Many of Grave's contemporaries accused him of glaring historical inaccuracies, to the point where the suspension of disbelief essential to a historical novel is no longer possible. Yet the rank and file reader, like me and probably you, don't have an in-depth knowledge of languages extinct as the dinosaurs, or of moldy mythology. We probably wouldn't be bothered by any inconsistencies, if we even noticed them, we just want to hear a good story. We would gladly suspend our disbelief with King Jesus, if a good story was there to be heard.

Other writers, however, have supported Grave's unique spin on the gospel. In 2010, author Joseph Raymond exploited The Da Vinci Code craze with his book Herodian Messiah: Case For Jesus As Grandson of Herod. This work backs up King Jesus in claiming that Jesus was the grandson of both Herod The Great and the last Hasmonean king, Antigonus. I haven't read it, and don't intend to. I keep my history and my religion in separate boxes. In my world, one does not depend upon the other.

I Claudius and King Jesus author Robert Graves, striking an Imperial pose.

I Claudius and King Jesus author Robert Graves, striking an Imperial pose.

Arrested for Writing On A Suspended Poetic License

In his critique of another Robert Grave's novel, Count Belisarius, historian Anthony Kaldellis wrote "There are many historical novels set in the early sixth century, but none can be recommended that are both historically accurate and well written. R. Grave's Count Belisarius...is at least well written."

Does a historical novel really have to be historically accurate? I would argue that no, it does not. A historical novelist should certainly try to create an atmosphere of reality, to produce that ever-elusive suspension of disbelief, otherwise the more discerning readers are going to roll their eyes and slam the book shut. But a novelist is also allowed a generous measure of poetic license. He or she has no academic or scholarly expectations to adhere to, and so is not enslaved to the mundane minutiae of history. That is why the historical novel format is chosen over the history book, to retell the story from a fantastic, what if point of view.

One of the best historical what-ifs I have read was The Berkut, by Joseph Heywood. The story posits that Adolf Hitler survived World War II by hiding out in the Harz mountains. Meanwhile, Soviet leader Josef Stalin suspects that his arch-enemy did not commit suicide in a Berlin bunker, and sends a crack team of agents to bring the Fuhrer back to face his wrath.

Did these events really happen? Did Hitler really survive the war? A handful of crackpot conspiracy theorists might suggest he did, but most learned individuals would say no, that's utterly ridiculous. All the same, The Berkut makes for a fun lark, damn fine reading on a rainy day. Author Joseph Heywood obviously knows enough about the final curtain of WWII and its cast of characters to paint a backdrop that looks real. This authenticity eases the suspension of disbelief the reader must embrace to swallow that non-functional sugar pill.

In fact, I liked The Berkut so much I heartily recommend that you read it, instead of King Jesus.

King Jesus just can't make up its mind whether it wants to be history or fiction. It creates a quagmire digging too far into the soggy details of mythology, trying to expound upon how every detail of Christ's life was just a copy of some pre-Christian pagan motif. There are too many long-winded stretches where characters show off their knowledge of the gods and goddesses that predated the Messiah. The book is The Da Vinci Code, before The Da Vinci Code was cool.

But like him or lump him, at least Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame got it. He sprinkled in just enough mythology to sweeten the syrup, but didn't overwhelm his readers with it. He didn't try to prove that Jesus and Mary Magdalene actually got married and produced a royal line of heirs that became the Kings and Queens of England. He just brought up a fun historical what if and ran with it. If some rubes believed him, and other butt-hurt zealots dragged him before the Inquisition, well - the wackos will always be with us and we just have to deal with them. But we shouldn't let them spoil the fun for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, in King Jesus Robert Graves doesn't get it. He tries to be a scholar and a storyteller all at once. He brashly offends religious sensibilities, then tries to mitigate the damage. Make up your mind Bobby. The tasteless mush you produced here just does not satisfy the palate. If that mother-effer Mott had stolen this one off my shelf instead, he would have tossed it right back at me like a hot potato. Then I wouldn't still be looking for that fiend, 31 years after his dark deed was done.

Comments

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on February 23, 2021:

Very King James-ish of you, Mills. I hope you are doing well riding out the storm of this pandemic, but also slogging through the winter snows.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on February 21, 2021:

Blessed aren't the believers and non-believers who read this work.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on February 18, 2021:

Thank you Linda. I think you are right, it should have been a non fiction book. It may have been informative and thought provoking, if that was the case.

I appreciate you dropping in.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 17, 2021:

Thanks for writing this review, Mel. I read “The Da Vinci Code” not long ago and enjoyed it, despite the mythology. I don’t see the point in stretching the mythology too far. For me, the Jesus story is mysterious enough as it is. New evidence related to his existence and life would be wonderful, but based on your review “King Jesus” seems to have gone too far into the fictional area.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on February 17, 2021:

Thank you Devika. A nice warm fire during this bitter cold might make this book better. I appreciate you dropping in.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 16, 2021:

Hi Mel well, this is a good experience to be indoors and cozy by the fire. Your idea of reading this book sounds awesome.

Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on February 15, 2021:

Thank you John. I'm not so much settling in as freezing in place. The mercury dipped below the negative this past week. Lowest temps in four years here in Northern Colorado, and I had to pick this time for a move.

I really recommend you read The Berkut. It's a fantastic historical caper. Even read I Claudius if you can free a couple months off your calendar. I appreciate you dropping in.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on February 15, 2021:

Mel, I like a well-written historical novel but this certainly doesn’t sound like one. Bernard Cornwell is one of my favourite writer of historically based fiction eg. ‘Stonehenge.’ Thank you for sharing the failings of King Jesus, I appreciate the time you spent reading this just so others don’t have to bother. I hope you have settled in well to your new home and postal route.