James Frey seems to have a knack for generating negative publicity. First there was the 2006 controversy – played out very publicly on "Oprah" – over his allegedly fabricated memoir "A Million Little Pieces." Now it's his new book "The Final Testament of the Holy Bible," a satire scheduled for release on April 22 (Good Friday) which portrays Jesus as a Bronx resident who does drugs and parties with prostitutes.
But so far any uproar over his book hasn't come from the religious right. On the contrary, it's the secular literary community who are taking offense – not at religious blasphemy but at what they see as a rather cheesy attempt by Frey to insert himself again in the headlines.
"I'm sure the religious right will go crazy," Frey said to the New York Post in an interview about the book.
Oh, really? asks Salon critic Laura Miller. "Who besides good ol' Bill Donohue at the Catholic League can possibly be counted on to take offense at such a stunt?" she wonders, pointing out that "there's already a long history of revisionist literary accounts of Jesus' life and social criticism disguised as fiction": everything from "The Last Temptation of Christ" by Nikos Kazantzakis (1951) to "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal" by Christopher Moore (2001).
"Frey should just go ahead and admit he's trying to revive his career by egging on the followers of a religion who as a rule don't – at least not anymore – run around lopping the heads off those who draw pictures or string together words they don't like," suggests Sean Macomber in The American Spectator. "Some rebel."
Pondering Frey's true motives, Miller wonders if he might not be trying to transform himself from "villain" to "victim." "You can become a minor hero to the liberal intelligentsia if your work gets you persecuted by bullies like Bill O'Reilly," she points out. However, she predicts, "A role-change like that isn't going to be easy. As a matter of fact, it's going to take a miracle."
One way or another, Frey is also hoping to shake things up with an unusual publishing strategy. Under a headline of "James Frey weirdness," Entertainment Weekly described the arrangement by which the original manuscript of his book will be published by the Gagosian Art Gallery on a limited 10,000-copy run, complete with cover art and an exhibit in response to the book.
Frey will also self-publish the book online, in addition to making pricey ($150) autographed collector's editions available to 1,000 Frey fans. "[A]re there that many [Frey fans]?" wondered EW.
So far, it's not looking good.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.