In one corner, we have the greatest story ever told. In the other, a humorist known for his riffs on Jews, breakups, Lenny Bruce, voicemail, and as he tells it, “holding the mike” for Ira Glass. In Jonathan Goldstein’s latest, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!, old-fashioned storytelling meets irreverent characterization of some of the world’s most mythical personalities. (Noah, meet Samson. He’s a lusty brute.)
Though the premise sounds, shall we say, flippant, Goldstein manages to bring human depth to some fairly dusty parables with his trademark humor and snappy dialogue. While the historical accuracy of Biblical stories can be debated, our natural curiosity leads us to wonder how in the hell holy David got away with seducing Bathsheba, or how an unmarried couple stayed under the radar in census-happy Roman-controlled Bethlehem.
New York’s Accompanied Literary Society hosted a release party for Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! on Tuesday night at The Box, with special guests Ira Glass and Sarah Vowell, fellow This American Life-rs and witty radio personalities. Glass’s interview with Goldstein preceded a reading of the book’s first chapter, on an oafish Adam and alpha female Eve in the Garden of Eden (excerpt below). And no, Ira did not strip or use Russian nesting dolls as props.
The fruit was squishy and tart. She smooshed it around in her mouth. She squinted her eyes. It was a bit like trying on new glasses. It was a bit like an amyl nitrate popper. It was a bit like a big kiss on the lips right at first when you weren’t sure if you wanted to be kissed or not. She felt a thousand little feet kicking at her uterus. … The idea of her own nudity, as well as Adam’s, had always felt more like a Nordic, coed health spa thing; now, with the fruit of knowledge, it felt more like a Rio de Janeiro carnival thing.
Among the most notable sections of the book are the David chapters, not only for the narrative but for the author’s affinity for the hero. One has to wonder what he was tapping into when writing, “Out of his seven brothers, he was not the wisest, nor was he the handsomest, the strongest, kindest, smartest, or even the cleanest. Comedy was what you got when all the really good qualities were taken.” And maybe we’re projecting here, but statements like “David wanted to please the Lord, and he believed a hardy chuckle would do Him good” could be relevant to, say, a humorous retelling of a religious text.
We chatted with the man-of-the-hour about jean shorts, Kings on television, and rabbis. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Flavorwire: You mentioned that the stories you chose for the book were the ones that you remembered from childhood. Which of the stories or characters resonate more with you now, as an adult?
Jonathan Goldstein: Kind David’s best friend Jonathan kind of abdicated the throne so David could be king. I was sort of attracted to his decency over the louder forms of heroism. Just being a decent, good person seems like an underrated quality I wouldn’t have noticed as a kid. I started re-reading a lot of the stories and I felt like — well I don’t know. I was two thirds of the way through a story about Merlin when someone told me he wasn’t actually in The Bible. And then I felt like, well, I should actually read The Bible because that’s what adults do.
FW: So how did you research it?
JG: I was in New York one summer when I was writing it and I went to The Strand bookstore and I spent a lot of time in the Bible section — you know that kind of crowd. Tight jean shorts with rolled up cuffs, one testicle always hanging out.
FW: The Bible’s target audience for 2009.
JG: It was initially, yeah. Anyway, the ones I ended up writing about were the ones I liked as a kid. The characters I like then are the ones I still like, the ones I find interesting. Not much has changed.
FW: You said something about you admired David for being “smart and cowardly.” Explain that?
JG: Yeah, there was a story about him pretending to be an idiot, which in those days meant drooling. A lot of drool. I didn’t drool, but I think maybe I had a yo-yo. I’d get really into my yo-yo in about sixth grade. And it seemed crafty.
FW: I always thought the David and Bathsheba story was a strange one, very odd for a holy man.
JG: It’s really weird because David is considered what we’d call a tzaddik, which is like a righteous person, and he did so much crazy crap. Like that. He sent her husband off to die. That’s a pretty lusty character, so that’s how I wrote him.
FW: Has your rabbi read the book?
JG: I don’t really have a rabbi, per se, but my childhood rabbi I ran into about a year ago. I have that radio show that airs on Sunday afternoons. [Note: Goldstein has read excerpts of the book on WireTap, archived here.] He said that at the end of the week he listens to CBC because he just wants to avoid Judaism. He had discovered that I had a show on the air [and listened to it], then told me it’s the most Jewish thing that’s he ever heard. And that’s coming from a rabbi.
Last but not least — and speaking of book trailers — Goldstein’s got a couple, author-centric and projected 15 feet high on The Box’s gilded stage for maximum effect. You, dear reader, can also view them on YouTube: