As I go to review this, I realize I never got around to putting it on my "currently reading" shelf. Weird.
I love Bible stories and parodies of Bible stories, and Lamb is no exception. From the first page, Moore greets me with the snappy dialogue that endeared me to him in Fool. Lamb also reminds me of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!, by Jonathan Goldstein. Both books take a tongue-in-cheek, anachronistic approach to chronicling the relationship between humanity and God, and both employ a liberal amount of physical humour. As I said in my review of Fool, this is not usually the comedy that impresses me, but once again, Moore manages to persuade me to make an exception. His dialogue, characterization, and simple storytelling ability all contribute to make Lamb more than just a series of flatulence, sex, and bacon jokes (although there are plenty of all three).
This book is a great example of where a frame story works well. Biff, our narrator, is a "forgotten disciple" of Jesus. An angel, Raziel, whom we're given to understand is not all that bright (he wants to be Spider-Man), resurrects Biff on twenty-first-century Earth on the orders of Heaven: Biff is going to write his own gospel, and he's going to tell the story of Jesus' childhood. The four canonical gospels tend to omit this part of Christ's life, focusing more on the birth and his "ministry" from when he was thirty until that whole Crucifixion deal. Biff manages to find a Bible in the hotel room where he and Raziel are staying, and he hides it in the bathroom to read where the angel won't interfere. He's understandably unimpressed with the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and eager to set the record straight. Thanks to the gift of tongues, Biff gets to do this in colloquial English, which makes it much more entertaining.
So while the main action happens two thousand years prior, we do get interjections from Biff as he is writing. Mostly, they're hilarious, as this early passage from when Biff is still acclimating to the new world order:
There were fifteen of us—well, fourteen after I hung Judas—so why me? Joshua always told me not to be afraid, for he would always be with me. Where are you, my friend? Why have you forsaken me? You wouldn't be afraid here. The towers and machines and the shine and stink of this would not daunt you. Come now, I'll order a pizza from room service. You would like pizza. The servant who brings it is named Jesus. And he's not even a Jew. You always liked irony. Come, Joshua, the angel says you are yet with us, you can hold him down while I pound him, then we will rejoice in pizza.<
In addition to the humour, however, there's a note of apprehension, and that's one reason Lamb is more than just a cheap attempt at Biblical humour. Biff has the tough job of being Joshua's Fifth Business, the Dunstan Ramsay of the Bible:
"… And Mother yammering on always about how Joshua did this, and Joshua did that, and what great things Joshua would do when he returned. And all the while I'm the one looking out for my brothers and sisters, taking care of them when Father got sick, taking care of my own family. Still, was there any thanks? A kind word? No, I was doing nothing more than paving Joshua's road. You have no idea what it's like to always be second to Joshua."
That's Joshua's brother James, remarking privately to Biff after Biff and Joshua have returned from their decades-long journey to the Far East. Biff, of course, knows all about being second to Joshua; he has practically been the man's shadow for his entire life. As Joshua learns wisdom and enlightenment from the Three Wise Men who attended his birth, Biff tries to seek his own form of wisdom (such as the Kama Sutra) while also looking out for his all-too-honest and good friend. Furthermore, Biff and Joshua are both hopelessly in love with Mary Magdalene, who loves both of them back—but she would choose Joshua in a heartbeat, if he weren't obligated to remain celibate. So Biff knows all about being "the other guy," all about having to take care of Joshua so Joshua can take care of the rest of humanity.
The night before Mary's unwilling wedding to the villainous Jakan, Biff and Joshua leave Galilee to seek Joshua's destiny. To lend the story some structure, Moore has Joshua find the Three Wise Men who attended his birth. From them, Joshua hopes to learn how to be the Messiah. Of course, it doesn't quite work out that way. They confront demons, play a con game to rescue children from a sacrifice to Kali, and even become Buddhist monks and learn kung fu. But Joshua doesn't learn to become the Messiah because, in the words of the final wise man, Melchior, "Your dharma is not to learn, Joshua, but to teach."
There are plenty of exhibitions of Joshua's supernatural powers, mostly healing, but Joshua is very rarely frightening or unhuman. (There is a notable exception when, in an uncharacteristic moment of anger, he strikes blind an archer for killing a bandit.) According to Biff, Joshua is always certain that he is the Son of God but is less certain of how to handle being the Messiah. Thus, it is interesting to observe the change that both characters undergo after they return to Galilee and Joshua begins his ministry: Joshua becomes more and more sure of his path, which includes the Crucifixion; Biff becomes more and more desperate to save his friend from himself.
Moore has essentially retold Jesus' story as a buddy road movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. And I'm focusing on this aspect rather than the humour, because I think that most people who have heard of Christopher Moore have heard of him as a humourist. Extolling Lamb because of its comedy is all well and good, but the comedy is just another way in which Moore tells a much deeper story. Biff's gospel is a lot more intimate and humanizing than the canonical Biblical gospels, and Biff's closeness to Joshua brings us closer to him as well.
In many ways, I think I like Lamb for the same reasons I love Fool: it's a hilarious parody of a great work of literature, one that had me laughing out loud literally from the first page. It has wonderful major and minor characters, great episodic situations, and a story that works both on the level of comedy and as a deeper, coming-of-age tale. It worries me that, of the three Moore books I have read, the two I liked were both, in a sense, parodies of stories already told. I was less impressed with Fluke,and I hope it proves to be an anomaly rather than the rule for Moore's original stories.
And I hope Raziel gets to be Spider-Man. Poor angel deserves break. We'll see how he fares trying to grant wishes in The Stupidest Angel, but honestly, he's probably better off just watching television.