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Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!

Jonathan Goldstein - Riverhead Books

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Rewriting the Bible is a pretty audacious undertaking. Jonathan Goldstein doesn't seem like the most likely candidate for the challenge, either. He's best known for the cringingly funny and self-deprecating stories he tells on radio programs like This American Life and Wiretap (the latter of which he hosts on CBC radio in Canada), stories about mundane things like giving his nephew advice about girls or his 10 soul-crushing years as a telemarketer. His nonfiction storytelling wrings humor out of sadness, but the Bible? Really?

Really. Because Goldstein does with the Old Testament what he's done with his personal life on the radio: He treats it as utterly ordinary, extracting the funny and profound bits by narrowing his focus. (The book is concerned almost wholly with the Hebrew Bible, save the final chapter on Joseph's dilemma -- he feels like he's been "cheated on with the Lord".)  In Goldstein's first book, Lenny Bruce is Dead, this narrowing didn't always make sense -- it was an entire novel told in nonchronological, unconnected paragraphs -- but ...The Bible takes stories with enormous cultural and religious weight and trims them down to their essence: stories about people who are confused about their lives.

The book's take on scripture balances the sublime and the ridiculous, and it rings true. Eve, in her first line of dialog, tells God that "Adam is a nimrod," but Goldstein's description of the original-sin-inducing fruit incident is moving and beautiful. Many of the stories focus on family, specifically siblings. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Jonah and his brother Vito (no, Vito does not make an appearance in the original) struggle with each other and with God, though whenever the weight of these fragile relationships gets too heavy, Goldstein throws in some slapstick. Adam sculpts a giraffe from the animal's own poo. An angel sucker-punches Jacob in the throat. The contractor of the Tower of Babel is cursed by only being able to speak Pig Latin; at the tale's climax, he sighs, "Od-gay, ou-yay in-way."

The whole book, in a sense, follows after that line. Goldstein's longest retelling, in three parts, is the story of David, whose lifelong ambition is not to be a hero or a king, but simply a well-loved stand-up comedian (his slaying of Goliath: "The little one kills the big one. Bonk. Death. That's comedy"). Yet at the end of his life and unsuccessful comic career, David decides that nothing matters except the Lord. Life is a farce for many of the Bible characters, whose plans never pan out or are thwarted by family members and enemies, but in the end the only choice is surrender -- albeit a hilarious surrender -- to God.

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