Great comedy is so hard to craft. It's almost impossible to write a book stuffed with killer punchlines, and weaving gentler humor throughout, while also juggling all other aspects of a solid and satisfying read. Here are a dozen books that did all that, for me: Good Omens, Pride and Prejudice, Lucky Jim, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Tom Jones, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Cold Comfort Farm, At Swim-Two-Birds, Breakfast of Champions, The Adrian Mole Diaries, The Importance of Being Earnest and Is Sex Necessary?
No two of those books are much akin. Each author was sharply original, speaking from an idiosyncratic viewpoint. But they balance their own weird take on life against a broad sensitivity to our common humanity: most of those books were surprisingly popular. They struck our inner chords. These writers discovered things nobody had put into words, but which all of their readers wish they had thought of first.
Christopher Moore is just like that. He's a kind of idiot savant of comedy, turning what you know upside down, so that you laugh, cry, and groan at once. As Carl Hiaasen put it, Christopher Moore is "a very sick man, in the very best sense of the word."
Lamb is the best of the five Moores I've read. It actually sits at number one, on goodreads Funniest Books of all time list (which is slightly overrating it, because Moore's a goodreads member, and they alway get nudged up goodreads lists by their virtual friends). Lamb was fun to reread, and I gained new respect for Moore's skills, and the depth of his work. His books are delightfully weird, but most are light, frothy entertainment. Lamb (and Fool, a dark and dirty Lear, from the fool's viewpoint) went deeper, and had more levels of craft.
I'll give you the first paragraphs of Lamb, to show you Moore's storytelling, his clarity as a writer, his humanity and his humor:
The first time I saw the man who would save the world he was sitting near the central well in Nazareth with a lizard hanging out of his mouth. Just the tail end and the hind legs were visible on the outside; the head and forelegs were halfway down the hatch. He was six, like me, and his beard had not come in fully, so he didn't look much like the pictures you've seen of him. His eyes were like dark honey, and they smiled at me out of a mop of blue-black curls that framed his face. There was a light older than Moses in those eyes.That is some well-organized prose. Deft strokes of color, biblical and mystical echoes, and words, phrases and rhythm perfectly picked for maximum punch.
"Unclean! Unclean!" I screamed, pointing at the boy, so my mother would see that I knew the Law, but she ignored me, as did all the other mothers who were filling their jars at the well.
The boy took the lizard from his mouth and handed it to his younger brother, who sat beside him in the sand. The younger brother played with the lizard for a while, teasing it until it reared its little head as if to bite, then he picked up a rock and mashed the creature's head. Bewildered, he pushed the dead lizard around in the sand, and once assured that it wasn't going anywhere on its own, he picked it up and handed it back to his older brother.
Into his mouth went the lizard, and before I could accuse, out it came again, squirming and alive and ready to bite once again. He handed it back to his younger brother, who smote it mightily with the rock, starting or ending the whole process again.
I watched the lizard die three more times before I said, "I want to do that too."
The Savior removed the lizard from his mouth and said, "Which part?"
Moore has the eyes and imagination to breathe life into all his characters. We have the gormless angel Raziel, who has observed humans for millennia, yet still believes soap operas and TV wrestling are true; the Roman Centurion Gaius Justus Gallicus, with a sharp eye, dry wit and troubled heart; Jesus, Biff and Maggie (Mary Magdalene), with parents (3 for Jesus), siblings, and aunts and uncles; all the people we met in the four orthodox gospels; and a long parade of Moore's added zany creations, down to the Magus Balthazar's concubines:
Tiny Feet of the Divine Dance of Joyous Orgasm,The central characters are Jesus (called Joshua here) and Biff, who make a Don Quixote/Sancho Panza pairing. Maggie is close to both of them: Biff is crazy for her, and she is crazy for Joshua. But Joshua and Biff spend the middle half of the book voyaging to the East, seeking the three wise men and finding various enlightenments, while Maggie remains in Nazareth, out of the picture.
Beautiful Gate of Heavenly Moisture Number Six,
Temptress of the Golden Light of the Harvest Moon,
Delicate Personage of Two Fu Dogs Wrestling Under a Blanket,
Feminine Keeper of the Three Tunnels of Excessive Friendliness,
Silken Pillows of the Heavenly Softness of Clouds,
Pea Pods in Duck Sauce with Crispy Noodle,
The Life of Brian covered this same territory, and even used the same conceit: finding fresh insight (and avoiding outright blasphemy) by revisiting Christ's tale, seen through the eyes of a comic foil. But we hardly see Jesus in The Life of Brian, while Lamb dives into the heart of the gospels. Christopher Moore is very brave and ambitious in this book: he's retelling the whole story of Christ that we know, he's playing every comic riff he can find or invent there, and he's also looking for insight into the struggles and messages of Jesus. Which is probably impossible to achieve in one book. Moore takes a decent swing at all three, and ends up with an impressively balanced and layered history/comedy/fable.
There are two essential journeys in Lamb, the physical and the psychological. We look in detail at Joshua's childhood and youth, so we see him striving to become a grown-up, while also embracing fully his own humanity, while always seeking to clarify what goodness means and how it should be lived. And Biff, like Danny DeVito in Twins, is where God put everything else. Joshua is so innately good that he's totally honest and trusting; Biff has to buffer him from the dirty and devious sides of humanity:
Maggie: "But aren't you touched by who he is? What he is?"But there's much to love in Biff, even more to laugh at, and some bright glimmers of savant. He manages to discover gravity, evolution and pencils centuries before anyone else. Nobody notices.
Biff: "What good would that do me? If I was basking in the light of his holiness all of the time, how could I take care of him? Who would do all of his lying and cheating for him? Even Josh can't think about what he is all of the time, Maggie."
"I think about him all of the time. I pray for him all of the time."
"Really? Do you ever pray for me?"
"I mentioned you in my prayers, once."
"You did? How?"
"I asked God to help you not be such a doofus, so you could watch over Joshua."
"You meant doofus in an attractive way, right?"
I won't go too far into the details. You should read Lamb, where Moore tells them far better than I can. But I found the big picture very shrewdly shaped.
The first quarter of the book takes Josh and Biff from age six to thirteen. If you really know your Bible, you'll know that there are several books which do cover tales from these years - but they were all edited out of the Bible. So Moore can take liberties here. He uses this part to draw the time and place, and show us the main currents going on in a small village, near a more cosmopolitan town, under Roman occupation. Joseph is a carpenter, Biff's father is a stonemason, and by adolescence the two boys are apprenticing at these trades. We meet their families and neighbors, and Joshua gradually discovers and explores his powers, and all the dilemmas he must navigate. So Moore builds his main stage, and shows us his primary characters.
At thirteen, Joshua finds out that three wise men showed up at his birth, and declared him the Messiah. He needs to know more. So he and Biff set off for Antioch, and Balthasar, the closest Magus. Josh and Biff spend the second and third quarter of Lamb traveling to Afghanistan, and Tibet, and India, as they track down the three Magi, and learn three whole different schools of magic and wisdom.
Here, Moore takes even greater liberties. We leave the Bible behind, and explore ideas from the Kama Sutra, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Joshua and Biff spend seventeen years in the East, years of apprenticeship in each different school of thought. And these travels and exotic countries give Moore hundreds of new opportunities to wisecrack.
The final quarter of Lamb mirrors the orthodox gospels, as Jesus and Biff age from thirty to thirty-three, and Jesus gets baptized by his cousin John, coins parables, collects apostles, performs miracles, and continually aggravates the Pharisees. In this part, the better you know your gospels, the more humor, wisdom and foreboding you'll find in Lamb. In case you never read the gospels, I won't tell you how the story ends.
I've never seen a book attempt anything like the various aims I see in Lamb. Moore borrowed some elements and dusty scenery from The Master and Margarita, but he really set out on a journey nobody else had even thought of. I've read more realistic books, and funnier books, and wiser ones - but I must say, this is a marvelous blend of those flavors. If you've never read any Moore, and you're looking for a book that will make you both laugh and think, I highly recommend Lamb: the Gospel according to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal.