“The Book of Neil”
Author: Frank Turner Hollon
Price: $20.00 (Cloth)
Prolific Baldwin county attorney/novelist Frank Turner Hollon has, this time out, written a fable. It is a familiar story, one that has been exploited in fiction and films, serious and satirical.
Here’s the opening line of “The Book of Neil”: “The first time I saw Jesus was on the fourteenth hole of Crystal Creek golf course on a Friday afternoon around 3:30.” He was wearing “a greyish robe tied by a thick rope around the waist. His hair was long and swept across his shoulders with each practice swing. I tried not to stare.”
Neil and the robed man chat and Jesus says to Neil, “Have you ever robbed a bank?”
This sets the plot in motion. Jesus and Neil hatch their scheme and, being careful not to harm anyone, rob the local bank.
Neil escapes, but Jesus is quickly caught, as he expected to be. The robbery was a ploy for media attention so he could better deliver his message.
He has returned, as promised, but he fears “Maybe I waited too long, Neil.…People seem to have other gods now, like computers, cell phones, new cars, or even their own tight and tan bodies.… [A]thletes…[m]ovie stars, politicians, even people who sing poorly….[are] [w]orshipped, admired, emulated.”
Jesus explains that since his return he has been either ignored or abused. “A Probate Court in Alabama declared me mentally incompetent and I spent thirty days in a rather bad place.”
After the arrest the police try to identify their prisoner, but there is no DNA match, no fingerprint, no facial recognition except that EVERYONE recognizes him from the ubiquitous pictures on Sunday school classroom walls.
So: hoaxer, wandering mental patient? Is it really Jesus or not? Who knows?
The character of Jesus, as one might expect, remains constant. He is calm, imperturbable.
The other characters react to him. They change as they are affected by him, and come to believe or not. Becky, the teller at the bank, is quickly convinced and, once he is out on bail, takes Jesus—complete with an ankle bracelet prescribed by the court—into her home and feeds him lasagna.
She explains: “He looked at me and I felt all my anger flow from my body like water.” She goes on: “It was. . . [a] peaceful feeling…a warmth inside me, all over me, a tingle in certain places.”
The chief of police is trending towards convinced. He lost his beautiful son, James, to cancer at age six, and yearns to be reunited. To his wife he confesses, “I don’t know, Mary. Maybe I’ve finally lost my damn mind, but I just feel different around the guy.”
Jesus’ greatest challenge is Chris, the reporter for the “New York Times,” a complete atheist: “I don’t believe there’s a God, and so I don’t believe you could be the son of God. No father, no son.” Chris asks, as many do, why a merciful God would allow terrible things to happen, invent cancer, let children suffer.
To him Jesus proposes something akin to Pascal’s wager: since death is inevitable, “Why would you not allow yourself the comfort of faith in a higher purpose?”
Even the President of the United States secretly visits Jesus in Becky’s basement. He wants to see for himself. Hollon’s novel is neither a satire—although there are some smiles—nor a metaphysical essay, though serious matters are taken up. Believers will not be offended and readers will not be dazzled by new interpretations of the old conundrum of faith, but the characters are real enough, however quickly sketched in. The dialogue is clean and the question, unanswered, never really goes away.
The story ends as it must, as it always has.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”