Sunday, October 06, 2013

Sunday in Surreal Time: A.J. Langguth's "Jesus Christs"

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Sunday in Surreal Time: A.J. Langguth's "Jesus Christs" - A.J. Langguth's "Jesus Christs" came to me as a drug store paperback (1969) in the time and the place when that was how you found most books.  It was unexpected, a different take on the story of Christ than I'd really ever seen.

I'd probably have heard Lenny Bruce's routine depicting Christ with Moses driving through Spanish Harlem, dropping into St Patrick's Cathedral, encountering Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheen, so there was some semblance of familiarity to this version of Christ who walked among us.  And, there was some similarity in the imaginings – asking what if the son of god was around the corner.  "Jesus Christs" was a mindbender.

In vignettes short and long it showed Jesus wandering through different eras, in various human incarnations. "Jesus Christs" took a black out comedy skit approach of in some of its vignettes - Vaudeville's Olson and Johnson were being rediscovered at the Time).  Maybe it was somewhat informed by Joseph Heller's Catch-22. It had the ring of The Twilight Zone. That style approached ones also used by  Donald Barthelme.

Applying those techniques to Jesus, this was pretty adventurous stuff in those days, but the breadcrumbs were spread ahead by such as the recently unearthed Dead Sea Scrolls – open to more than the usual interpretation, because they were so fragmentary.

I got my hands on a copy recently. How had it weathered the years? Pretty well, really. The theatre of the absurd it betokens had its day admittedly. But it is in the way it looks back and forward prophetically, off-beat and oddly inspirational, that this little light shines. On another level, it is a buried gem: It is like REM or the Pogues before they hit - It is something I know that is not widely known. Oooh...Illuminativille!

In these pages, Jesus confuses his apostles. They don’t necessarily understand him. The parables mean different things to different people. Like me and many others, I think the author Langguth sit through many a service. Every Sunday the Gospel from the pulpit proclaimed-reproclaimed until the snippets resonate and bounce, and interact with one another. The bits from the Jesus journey. Some of it from after his resurrection making a new season: Sunday in Surreal Time.

Clever, weird, the book tells the basic story: Jesus was everybody's friend He had to be dealing with the devil. He had to lead his troops to a certain oblivion, preaching love.

Did this book get lost in the general clamor? Perhaps. Also pub'd that year: Tom Wolf's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge, John Updike's Couples, Donald Barthelme's Unspeakable Practices, Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, John Le Carre's A Small Town in Germany, Carlos Castaneda' The Teachings of Don Juan, Alexsandr Solzhenitzen's Cancer Ward  all came out the year of 1968 when A.J. Langguth's Jesus Christs was released in hard cover. It is a pity. I think everyone should read it. What about the author?

A.J. Langguth's career was mostly that of a journalist - and journalism teacher ( a little funny cause, in one of his Jesus's to-do lists one item is "last resort, teach in academia"). He was for a time the New York Times' Saigon burearu chief during the Viet Nam War. Earlier he'd covered such events as Jack Ruby's trial. He taught at USC. Wrote a couple of other novels, but mostly stuck more with history, including a history of Viet Nam War.

                                                                                                - Jack Vaughan, Oct 2013

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