Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore, came across my lap one afternoon when I went to visit a friend working at the Waldenbooks in my hometown mall (Waldenbooks no longer exists and I don’t think that mall even has a bookstore anymore), and he enthusiastically passed me a copy and proceeded to reenact the scene where Jesus first drinks coffee and goes on a caffeinated healing binge. Needless to say, I was intrigued enough that I bought that very copy (all right, fine, I don’t remember, but it makes for a better story this way), and it immediately became one of my favorite books. Spoilers to follow…
Lamb is a book about the man we would come to know as Jesus, yes, but it’s not a book about religion. It’s really only after the Messiah returns to Nazareth following the death of his mother’s husband Joseph that the “story of Jesus” part really begins, what with the amassing disciples, assigning apostles, and scripting the Sermon on the Mount. But that all seems a bit rushed and frenetic, both in storytelling and in pacing, as it is necessary to Biff’s story only in that it leads us to his final moments. And while I’ll get to that later, let me point out: that’s the difference, that’s what makes this book so interesting. Lamb is not so much the story of Jesus as it is the story of Biff and his buddy Joshua, the kid who will be the Messiah, as they travel the world and have adventures. It’s kind of the ultimate guide to being a sidekick.
If you’ve ever read Christopher Moore, you know that his humor tends to lead towards silly wordplay and the wry observations of beta males who are failures in most things, with some dick jokes scattered about for fun. If that does not appeal to you, know that it doesn’t really appeal to me, either. I have seen too many Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies to ever get on board with that type of character; and while I appreciate a good dick joke here and there, it is far from a staple in my humor diet. But somehow, Moore makes it work. And really, don’t you feel a little better knowing the origin of Judo is actually from Jesus’s time learning kung fu from monks, but refusing to go on the attack, thus causing them to invent Jew-do, or, the way of the Jew?
The story of Biff and Josh is one of brotherly love. (And, to a lesser degree, how brotherly love somehow translates to religious devotion.) Josh puts up with Biff and all of his eccentricities, which include making up dirges, studying under the village idiot, and getting involved with any woman who’ll have him. To Biff’s credit, however, he always keeps a space in his heart romantically (well, and lustfully) for his other best friend, Mary of Magdala, known as Maggie. There’s a space in there, non-romantically, for Joshua as well – Biff is, at his core, quite loyal. The latter of Biff’s hobbies (women, harlots, prostitutes, concubines, adulteresses, and the inelegant banging thereof) end up benefiting Josh in a weird way, as the boy on the cusp of adulthood has just learned from the idiot angel Raziel that he is never to bed a woman. (Tough break when the guy has a lot on his plate to begin with, tougher when one of his best friends is a legendary hottie.) They’re barely days out of Nazareth when Josh hides out in the next barn stall over so Biff can employ a series of prostitutes and explain, through narration, sin. And this is, in many ways, the essence of their friendship. The boys have set out on the road so Josh can learn How to Be the Messiah. Biff tags along to make sure Joshua, who is ignorant to the seedier things of the world and is incapable of lying, doesn’t get mugged and murdered outside city limits. Biff keeps Josh alive when Josh is too innocent and too honest to do it for himself, and Biff learns things about the world that Josh can’t, so he can teach them to Josh and unwittingly make him a better Messiah. And Josh is there to keep Biff from talking too much and getting himself killed. (Like that time that Biff not-quite-accidentally releases a hell demon from his stone imprisonment – who turns out to be the demon, Catch, from Moore’s Practical Demonkeeping. When I finally got around to working my way through the Moore oeuvre, I was surprised by just how interconnected all of these books are.)
A lot of the characters, Josh in particular, often lose patience (if they ever had it) with Biff. He is not stupid, mind you. He is just disinterested in things that don’t immediately relate to his penis. This is accurate for a lot of contemporary male characters, but at least Biff is honest about it. Let it be said, though, that while Biff thinks with his downstairs brain, his heart expands and holds a place for most, if not all, of the girls he has dalliances with. There’s something to be said for that. I’m just not sure what. Biff has a large capacity for love: his childhood crush on Josh’s mother Mary, his genuine affection for each of the eight concubines he takes up with, and most importantly, his unceasing and unrequited love for Maggie, even after she marries someone else, even knowing that for all time, Josh will always come first in her heart. That’s not a metaphor for always keeping Jesus in one’s heart (although she does that, too); Joshua and the figure known as Jesus are the very literal dividing line of what we consider BC and AD. And Maggie loves both halves, his humanity and his divinity. Biff, for all of his efforts, will only ever be second place in her eyes. Even after they are both dead and gone and resurrected to write the true story of Jesus and his youth. It’s a really tough break. Biff carries it well, which speaks to his essentially broken nature, and makes him that much more heartbreaking in spite of his idiocy.
Part of Josh’s patience with Biff, you get the distinct impression, is out of pity for him. Actually, many of the characters seem to pity Biff, who loudly declares his career ambition to become a village idiot, and who seems largely concerned with getting laid. And really, he’s all talk, and thus the other characters’ pity is grossly unfair. Biff may be no genius, but he’s far from stupid. He’s the one who comes up with the plans (like the time he enlists a series of Untouchables to help him create a working Kali costume out of various animal organs, all to save some children rom being sacrificed). He’s the one that nudges Josh along when he has moments of doubt. And while at its core, it’s a story of brotherly love, Biff has a large capacity for love in all capacities: his childhood crush on Josh’s mother Mary, his genuine affection for each of the eight concubines (all of whom Biff beds, but not crassly), and more importantly, his unceasing and unrequited love for Maggie, even after she marries someone else, even knowing that for all time, Josh will always come first in her heart. In that respect, maybe Biff is an idiot, but he’s a sweet one who probably means well.
No holds barred: I absolutely love this book. Yeah, it’s a comedy, and it’s funny, but in between the humor (and the puns, and the penises), there is genuine heartwrenching emotion. The greatest pain does not come from Biff’s knowledge that Maggie will never truly love him the way that he wants, but from Josh/Jesus dying, refusing to accept Biff’s help no matter how much he schemes and risks his own skin for Josh’s sake. Biff goes after Judas to exact revenge, and having done so, heartbroken, he kills himself. When he is resurrected by Raziel to write the “true story” of Jesus while Raziel busies himself watching daytime television, he is berated by Maggie for not having faith in Josh. It’s hard not to ache for Biff, who sacrificed his youth and his life for his best friend, who only wanted to protect him in any and every way he could, who lost everything anyway. It’s a great story about romance (or bromance), about friendship, about having one’s faith tested again and again, and about the merits of knowing someone with healing powers when you contract crabs.