Gospel

Wilton Barnhardt, Author St. Martin's Press $24.95 (788p) ISBN 978-0-312-08802-6
The talented Barnhardt, who scored a considerable critical success with his first novel, Emma Who Saved My Life (1989), has thrown himself into his second one with great--perhaps excessive--ambition. Gospel is a blockbuster--monstrously long, jammed full of research about places, church history, legend, language and philology--but unfortunately its narrative really does not begin to engage the reader until about halfway through, by which time one's patience may be exhausted. The story of a search for a gospel written by Matthias, a previously unknown disciple, is set in locations all over the world, from Chicago to Oxford, Dublin, Northern Ireland, Tuscany and Rome, Athens and Mount Athos, Jerusalem, the Nile and finally Sudan and Ethiopia, returning to a fundamentalist ministry in Louisiana. The searchers are former Jesuit Patrick O'Hanrahan, a biblical scholar living on past glories, who drinks too much and hopes the discovery and translation of the gospel will rescue his name from oblivion; Lucy Dantan, a naive young graduate student sent by their university to check on Patrick's progress; and Mordechai Hersch, a rabbinical scholar from Hebrew University who aims to reclaim the gospel for Israel. Various villains and near-villains are pursuing it for their own reasons: some bumbling CIA characters trying to hasten the End Times; a wealthy German collector; an obscure crypto-Catholic sect; and a vastly popular and wealthy TV preacher. Most of the narrative is taken up with the three protagonists, stumbling over one another and the opposition. (The rather improbable gospel itself, supposedly in translation and with pseudo-scholarly footnotes, is interspersed.) The early chapters are quite tedious, with the relationships between the characters taking too long to come into focus; and Barnhardt's overloading of the narrative with touristic and religious information, some of it quite lively in itself, does not propel the plot. In Greece, where Lucy finally loses her virginity and Patrick suffers a dark night of the soul, the novel gains momentum, and the closing passages accumulate a degree of lumbering power--even the arch and mostly annoying asides from no less than God himself begin to be effective at this point. There is no doubt of Barnhardt's vitality and ambition; what he badly needs is an editor willing to curb his excesses and salvage his real gift for comedy and rueful confrontation. 100,000 first printing. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/29/1993
Release date: 04/01/1993
Genre: Fiction
Ebook - 816 pages - 978-1-250-04722-9
Paperback - 816 pages - 978-0-312-11924-9
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