By John Niven
Published by William Heinemann, 2011
Review: Jane Turley
Hmm. Rather a precarious title for a novel.
I suspect that The Second Coming, a novel about the return of Jesus Christ, will elicit author, John Niven, a good number of Goggle hits. With all the talk about the end of the world the publicity opportunities for such a novel must be enormous! I bet Katie Price (aka Jordan) wished she’d thought of it first. But thank goodness she didn’t – it could have lead to a lot of confused readers.
However, I’m worried for Niven. What if Harold Camping’s sums are correct for an October apocalypse? Niven could land himself in serious trouble if Him Upstairs hasn’t calmed down about Jesus being portrayed as a dope smoking, beer swilling, bohemian musician…
God: Hey you down there! You on your knees. With the pen.
Camping: I knew it was today! I had it all worked out!
God: No, not you, you old fool. I mean that author fella, Niven. Come here, my boy. We’ve got some talking to do…
Niven: Me? But…but…I was just going for a walk…
God: So, you think you can walk? Ha, ha, ha...
Right, so you’ve probably got the idea that The Second Coming is a little anarchic. It is. Here’s the scenario; God has gone fishing and left Jesus in charge. Unfortunately, whilst Jesus has been smoking pot and hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, life on earth has not been going to God’s plan so when he returns he has no alternative but to send Jesus back to sort it all out. Once back on earth “JC” wins a slot on American Pop Star, encounters the infamous music mogul Steven Stelfox and rockets to superstardom. But there is a price to pay for fame as JC soon discovers…
I loved the premise for The Second Coming having found both Niven’s previous novels hugely entertaining. So I was disappointed that despite Niven’s bountiful imagination and obvious gift for humour The Second Coming didn’t quite have that elusive X factor. Religious humour, and indeed any humour, is dangerous ground but Niven’s which can veer from the sharp, caustic wit of Kill Your Friends to the slapstick comedy of The Amateurs, is more than capable of delivering. Regrettably, this time around The Second Coming just didn’t quite meet my expectations of either humour or content.
The novel really unhinges when Niven abandons the scenes in heaven and hell, which play to his sense of the bizarre, and moves to JC’s adventures on earth. Niven quickly gets bogged down and the pace slows dramatically, particularly when JC and his disciples - a distinctly dull bunch who are there for no other reason than to make JC look good - embark on a Summer Holiday style journey on an old bus. Frankly, it was all a little tedious and after the initial laughs about JC being hip and cool, it fell a bit flat. The problem is, when you cast the Son of God as your protagonist, he’s got a lot to live up to and if you mix humour and pathos, you’d need to be sure you’re getting it spot on. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.
To be fair, the novel does pick up pace again when the talent contest begins and JC squares up to the obnoxious Stelfox of Kill Your Friends. However, the showdown between JC and Stelfox came too soon without Niven capitalizing on the potential of two such opposing characters. Having thrown the murderous Stelfox into the melting pot, I felt Niven should have really should have pursued this relationship further but instead JC is kicked off the show and slopes off to run a dreary commune. As a result, the pace slows again and the book begins to drag before the drama slowly builds again to a rather predictable, but nevertheless, somewhat satisfying climax.
Interestingly, after reading The Second Coming, I discovered Niven had begun it as a screenplay. This may explain why, as I was reading, I kept visualizing the scenes more than I normally do, particularly during the opening chapters. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the late Leslie Nielsen as God and Johnny Depp as JC and there’s a juvenile feel to some of the humour which might work well in a movie as it did for cult films like Airplane and Blazing Saddles - although how one would blend such humour with the latter half of the book, which is essentially a reworking of the greatest story ever told, I’m not so sure.
So sadly, overall, The Second Coming didn’t quite gel for me. Possibly, it was too difficult a project at this stage in Niven’s development and the task set was certainly a difficult one. He’s clearly an ambitious writer though, prepared to run the risk of literary and moral crucifixion, and to that extent there is much about his writing that is appealing. There’s certainly a brutality and an edge to it which is matched by his vivid imagination and ribald humour. As a consequence, there is much in his novels that has the potential to easily offend: sexism, violence, religious mockery to name but a few. However, you need to see below the jokes, the profanities and the cruelty and acknowledge the social commentary and what it implies about modern life to get the real essence of his work. As for The Second Coming, the book actually says less about religion than you might think - the message is not that religion corrupts man but that man corrupts religion. One need only look at the extraordinary events of recent days to see how much of this is true.
I think Niven’s best work is yet to come. But it’ll probably be worth the wait.