Photo: Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan
Nick Tosches is the kind of writer who can turn readers into fakers. You find a book like his bleakly beautiful 2002 novel In the Hand of Dante or his sweeping, darkly philosophical biographies of Dean Martin (Dino) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Hellfire), and the perfectly hard-boiled prose and seductively world-weary tone will have you taking your drinks neat when — the truth is — you like them fizzy. Even when the spell fades and you’re back to sipping diet soda and such, Tosches’s books have a way of making you yearn for the seamy side.
Where the 65-year-old author’s celebrated nonfiction books shone light into American culture’s morally murky depths, the cult favorite’s audacious and haunting new novel, Under Tiberius (Little, Brown), goes even deeper: What if the greatest story ever told was a load of dookie? The book is a retelling of the rise of Jesus, who, in Tosches’s account, is a cynical conman working in cahoots with an equally avaricious Roman, Gaius Fulvius Falconius. “None of what’s in the Bible makes sense if you look at it closely,” says Tosches, speaking from a bench outside a bar in his Tribeca neighborhood. “So with this book, I wrote a gospel that didn’t conflict with history and that, in terms of what I know about human nature, made sense.” Simple as that.
In one of your earlier nonfiction books, King of the Jews, about the gangster Arnold Rothstein, there’s a long section where you look at the holes in the historical record of Jesus and hypothesize that he never existed. Was that the seed that grew into this novel?
I had the idea before King of the Jews. I had it for 20 years, when I first became aware of the fact that despite the Romans’ obsessive record, there was never a verifiable reference to Jesus. The historian Tacitus mentions Jesus and so does Josephus in his history of the Jews. But then I found out that these references are now almost definitely proven to be the interpolations of medieval monastic scribes, so it’s hard to see them as any sort of proof. And the gospels that are devoted to accounts of Jesus’ life were written 100 years after the fact. So I’m thinking, This is amazing, the Catholic Church is based on an imaginary wisp. Not even L. Ron Hubbard went that far.
If you had the idea 20 years ago, what took you so long to write the book?
I didn’t feel secure with my mastery of the history of the first century. I wanted to get that down right, and I always have little tests to see if I have the proper knowledge. I’ll go to the greatest expert in one specific historical detail in the world, and they either don’t know the answer and I do know it, or they’re wrong and I know they’re wrong, and that’s when I know I can move forward. This time the test was about the Latin term for agents with whom one deposited money for security in the Romance provinces at this particular period of time. I was told there was none. I found out there were several. That kind of approach has probably held me back. I’d love to be one of these James Patterson guys who can pump things out.
James Patterson is lucky enough to be able to afford to have a team that helps him.
I’m not much of a team member. I passed a store the other day on West Broadway, an employee’s entrance, and the door was open, and it read, “Team Members Welcome.” When a boss calls you a team member — it’s a good way to keep a good man down.
There are a lot of bleak notions in Under Tiberius, and I want to get to those in a second, but there’s an element of blasphemous fun in writing a book like this, right? How much did you enjoy, purely in a blowing-raspberries way, say, portraying Mary Magdalene as a toothless “fellatrix”?
Okay, I didn’t make her old and toothless; that’s actually in all the New Testament fragments: She was extremely old. I was surprised to learn this because I had grown up with this image of, oh, the Magdalene, a beautiful, loose woman. Mary was an old hag. I just took that idea all the way. Sanctimoniousness is dull. It’s insane.
Insane? There’s at least some structural social value in holding up things as sacred, isn’t there? It’s not purely irrational thinking.
To be sanctimonious about a fabrication when you got Con Ed bills to pay? You know, I love paganism. Before organized religion the gods were representations of the elements or forces inside human souls that were not always good. They operated out of jealousy, venality. That makes more sense than the all-powerful Biblical god. I don’t think anything all-powerful would really give a fuck about humans. He or she would have the wisdom and wherewithal to know that existence is a joke. With Under Tiberius all I can tell you is that I tried to tell the truth about Jesus. I tried to do an alternative version of the Jesus story that was not calculated to shock or to be different, but just seemed far closer to the truth.
There are aspects of the book — the way you frame the sermon on the mount, for existence — that convey the beauty of those lessons. Is the argument about what’s factually true in Jesus’ story beside the point? The historical-record cloudiness of his biography doesn’t make the wisdom of some of his words any less true, does it?
If there’s any meaning at all in writing it’s to move other people in the possibility of new directions. And some of the thoughts in the book are mine, some are not, and at the center of the story is what’s at the center of the human universe throughout time: fear and greed.
If the universe’s fuel is fear and greed, isn’t having something to lean on even more valuable than it would otherwise be? I mean, fine, Jesus is made up. Trust the song, not the singer.
You mean like, the meek shall inherit the Earth? You’re not gonna get shit now while you’re here, but wait till you die, buddy! I don’t want to get too far afield, but most essentially, I think the book is speaking about the nature of this species that in its arrogance calls itself sapiens. We had the need to invent a god that’s gonna protect us from our fears. It’s like, everybody is afraid to be killed: Let’s have God tell everybody that thou shalt not kill. You don’t want to find your wife in a barroom stall with some guy: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. God is basically the sum of all our fears. Not our strengths. What is it that’s so weak, repressed, and frightened in man that he was driven to invent a god? And another mystery that’s essential to the heart of the book is man’s first decline. Did he invent the concept of good and evil before he invented the god?
Why do you think the question, let alone the answer, of whether or not Jesus existed rankles people?
I believe that there’s something inherent in us that is uncomfortable with accepting mystery. We always want proof, and yet our proof is bound to be based on the algebra of human logic, which is, in essence, a nice parlor game.
Rather than see religious rules and laws as being comforting or otherwise useful, it seems like, according to the logic of Under Tiberius, they’re just meant to be a boot on the neck.
I believe that if you go to the root of any deep pervasive fear, you’ll find that nothing is there. It’s just the emotions and self-deceptions of people. Looking at the gospels, even Christologists, scholars of the new testament, though they don’t say it in so many words, they’ve basically agreed that nothing in the New Testament could have happened or did happen. But they never take the next step and say, “Therefore, it’s all shit.” Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Christ existed. Okay, there were times when he had to take a piss, times where he shit his tunic. Yes, many of the words attributed to him are beautiful. And many of the words attributed to him must have been worn-out clichés 100 years before his time, and some of them make no sense at all. I wanted to work that into the book. If there is an all-powerful god, do you think we really need to be precious about his feelings?
Did you look at any other literary examples of alternate-history Jesus literature? There’s a long list.
Someone, and I do take this as a great honor, compared my book to The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. But I tried to read that maybe 40-odd years ago and I got so bored that I didn’t make it past page 80. I had no use for other peoples’ fictional efforts or theological writings.
Do you think you’ve written a sympathetic Jesus? Even if he starts out with selfish motivations, he’s still offering people something they want, and it doesn’t seem necessarily harmful that they should want it.
Things aren’t black or white. Somebody said, “Well, Hitler loved his mother.” Nobody is so perfect as to be completely good or completely bad.
Do you remember when you decided that religion wasn’t your bag?
Probably about the same time I stopped believing in Santa Claus.
The other day, I was reading some of your work from the early ‘70s, and the writing felt so much showier. Now, even when the subject matter is wild, the diction and rhythms have a lovely stillness to them. Was that shift the result of a conscious effort to simplify your style?
No, but it makes sense and I take it as a great compliment. As I got older, I began to notice that a lot of the writers throughout history that I have a great deal of respect for, they all gravitated toward silence, as it were. You know, Ezra Pound’s great line? “All my life I’ve tried to write paradise; be still, paradise is in the wind.” Just be quiet and listen to the elements.
Are you working on something now?
Nah. After this one, I really need a break.
Well, since you’re going to hell, may as well enjoy the rest of your time on earth, right?
[Laughs.] I guess, I guess. If there’s a way to get to hell, I bet you need an e-ticket.