After a wildly successful literary debut, followed by a public shaming at the hands of a betrayed and angry Oprah Winfrey, ensued by a period of “rehab,” James Frey is back. And some commentators are suggesting that's he's looking a lot like an overexposed starlet being rewarded for behaving badly.
Just now he’s busy lapping up more media attention with his provocative new book, “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible,” which will enjoy another coveted hour on Oprah’s show in its ultra-coveted final month on air.
Oprah chose Frey's substance abuse story “A Million Little Pieces,” for her book club in 2005, instantly propelling it to bestseller status. No doubt, Frey and his publicists are hoping for a repeat performance (minus the fabrication later exposed).
Released Good Friday, Mr. Frey’s latest novel is an intentionally blasphemous retelling of Christianity’s greatest story ever told. Set in contemporary New York, Frey’s “Final Testament” resurrects Jesus as a former bisexual alcoholic and Manhattan security guard named Ben who gets a prostitute pregnant. Ben denounces pretty much everything Christianity, indeed, most religions, stand for: concepts of sin, heaven, a traditional God, the afterlife, even religion itself. God is love, according to Ben, who makes love to most everyone he meets – women, prostitutes, gay men, drug addicts, priests.
In other words, a perfect read for your Church book club.
Along with the novel comes an attention-seeking marketing pitch. “James Frey,” says the book's publicity material, “is not like other writers. He has been called a liar. A cheat. A con man. He’s been called a savior. A revolutionary. A genius. Now he has written his greatest work, his most revolutionary, his most controversial.”
The suggestion – that Frey, who faked his debut memoir, has endured the suffering of Christ – is as ill-contrived as the book itself, according to early reviews. “Be moved, be enraged, be enthralled by this extraordinary masterpiece,” the book’s publicists go on breathlessly .
More likely, readers will be unimpressed. Reviews suggest that the book reeks of adolescent theology and tired anti-organized religion themes that conveniently tap into the lucrative Christian Outrage market. The Guardian calls Frey’s “Last Testament” “artlessly crass,” and “lumpenly prosaic,” asserting “it makes Jesus Christ Superstar sound like Handel's Messiah.”
What will Oprah say? Will she respond as she did during her shaming of Frey (irate and indignant) or more along the lines of her later apology to Frey (excessive and unwarranted)? Readers can only hope that she will see through the easy stereotypes and clichés – not to mention the media parade.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.