The Messiah of Morris Avenue
by Tony Hendra
Published by Henry Holt
245 pages, 2006
From the bestselling author of Father Joe -- a slyly comic, deeply spiritual novel that imagines the Second Coming and an unlikely, lovably human new savior.
Tony Hendra's memoir, Father Joe, became a bestseller and a new classic of faith and spirituality -- even for those not usually inclined. His new novel is set in a very reverent future where church and state walk hand in hand. Johnny Greco -- a journalist who nurses a few grudges along with his cocktails -- stumbles onto a young man named Jay who's driving around Jersey preaching radical notions (kindness, generosity) and tossing off miracles. How better, Johnny schemes, to stick it to his nemesis, the Reverend Sabbath, America's #1 holy warrior, than to write a headline-making story announcing Jay as the Second Coming? Then something strange happens. Died-in-the-wool skeptic Johnny actually finds his own life being transformed by the new messiah.
In the beginning ... I knew him only as the Mysterious Stranger.
I first came across him at a low point in my career -- well, the low point, actually -- lower, as they say in Texas, than a snake's belly. Clinging to the underside of said reptile was where you'd find me, Johnny Greco, in the middle of the second decade of America's Millennium, or Christ's Millennium -- which by then were interchangeable terms.
I was entering if not the twilight, then certainly the happy hour, of a long career that had begun in youthful idealism at the Columbia School of Journalism and proceeded more realistically through the ranks of the newspaper of record, reaching its peak when I was forty-something and the descendants of Mr. Joseph Pulitzer bestowed one of their baubles on me for investigative reportage. This was when that still meant something: before they began awarding Pulitzers for In-Depth Gossip and Best Rumor.
From then on my path led downhill to its nadir: a senior post at something called the New Jersey Inquiring Mind.
According to its proprietors the Inquiring Mind was a newspaper, but it had no connection to news or to paper. At a time when most real newspapers had gone out of business, the term had the cachet of the obsolete. The Inquiring Mind was a newspaper in the same sense that, when I was a kid, a pimpmobile was called a brougham.
The home page was topped with tasteful line art depicting a crusader on whose shield was emblazoned the proud word TRUTH. Below this logo was a bottom-feeding web-zine, pumping out old-fashioned streaming video and chockablock with blinding ads for sex aids, bankruptcy lawyers, homeopathic cancer cures, intercontinental "dating" services, and astrology-based investment strategies.
There was an identical Inquiring Mind in every other state of the Union and in scores of nominally English-speaking countries. The whole world-wide web-net of rock-bottom sleaze cost almost nothing to run and made a fortune. It was owned by three guys in Bangalore. Alas, they didn't call themselves Three Guys from Bangalore. If only. They called themselves News Web and were listed on the Nikkei Multi-Bourse. One of them is now prime minister of India.
The Inquiring Mind was premised on an obvious if depressing reality. Whatever global computer literacy was doing for understanding among nations, it had added hundreds of millions of people to the happy throng of those willing to do anything in front of a camera. Now everyone in the world had the chance to act like a fubar senior on spring break. Whether it was a Sherpa trying to Rollerblade down Stage 2 of Everest or an ordinary Joe from Canton, Ohio, with size 14 feet so webbed that from the butt down he looked like Donald Duck, the freaks of Planet Earth found a warm welcome at the Inquiring Mind.
The top-rated department was the Nut Log, which brought our reportorial scrutiny to bear upon rampant cases of mental derangement. (It wasn't exploitative or anything -- perish the thought.)
Many Nut Log candidates were religious nuts, which wasn't surprising, given the improvements Christian fundamentalists had introduced into the American way of life. The Ten Commandments now appeared helpfully in schools, bars, planes, restrooms, gyms, and nightclubs; on cigarettes, alcohol, prescription drugs, lingerie advertising -- anywhere temptation might slither up and bite your ankle. This theocratic concern for American souls was widely seen as a good thing. In a national Inquiring Mind Insta-Poll we'd run, 86 percent of the respondees believed theocracy was spelled "The Ocracy"; 89.9 percent of them said they didn't know what Ocracy was, but they knew it was good.
The most powerful effect of the Ocracy on the deranged was its constant drumbeat that these were the Final Days. For someone with a limited supply of marbles, the urgency of the end-time message had a very specific result. Instead of developing some more normal abnormality like barking from trees or directing traffic in their boxers, they zeroed in on being God -- or close to it.
My favorite Nut Log nut was a former professor of archaeology at Rutgers. An obliging angel of the Lord had informed him that he was the reincarnation of Simon Stylites, a saint who'd spent the best years of his life atop a fifty-foot pole, sustained by bread and water.
St. Simon the Sequel had constructed a similar perch in his yard in Asbury Park and had been living up it in a loincloth for a while when the Nut Log crew caught up with him. His wife would shin up a ladder every morning to bring the Saint his bread and water.
We shot this ritual from a neighboring tree; the very first time, St. Simon snarled, "Damn you, woman, I said stale bread! And this water is clean!"
That did it for me. But what sold him to the Nut Log was an hour later, when the time came for his self-mortification. The appearance of his helpmeet had given him a fine erection, which he proceeded to pound with a mallet against the floor of the platform for a good half hour.
Then there were the messiahs. In theory, messiahs were a gold mine. Problem was, they were largely indistinguishable. The Manson eyes, the unkempt hair, the beard with bits of food in it, the occasional robe -- they'd all been watching the same movie. When you get right down to it, fanatics aren't that funny. Except for the King James garble coming at you nonstop, most Christs could just as easily be animal activists, Roswell geeks, classical bassoonists, or wine writers.
So when I first got a report from my stringer in south Jersey about some guy wandering around with a bunch of disciples, performing miracles, I didn't pay much attention. Messiahs were a dry hole. But other stringers in other parts of the state began to hear things on their grapevines: a man cured of TB in a supermarket parking lot in Phillipsburg, a kid with MS made to walk in a schoolyard in Mount Laurel; more than one report of young women cured of full-blown AIDS, no location given.
I began to wonder a little, but not whether miracles were happening; quite the opposite. These "miracles" had a familiar ring. They sounded like retooled versions of old tent-revival laying-on-of-hands scams: autosuggestion temporarily alleviating symptoms of serious disease. You had to know your way around not to be fooled by them, but desperately sick people often were. Then they'd find out there'd been no cure and fall apart.
Hardly what Nut Log fans wanted to see on their carputers in morning traffic.
Messiahs fell into two categories: nuts or hustlers. This guy sounded like the second, and I wasn't about to give him any publicity. He was probably doing enough harm as it was. On the other hand, he didn't seem to want publicity, which was puzzling. Nuts or hustlers, messiahs were always ravenous for attention; even the most severely unhinged sought us out day and night.
One of my stringers, a funny energetic Asian kid named Kuni, was intrigued enough to start keeping a record of the "miracle" messiah. There weren't that many sightings, perhaps five in as many months. All were after the fact. There was no way to predict where he was going to pop up. He seemed to be operating in the tristate area, but he was hard to track because he moved in the underground of the truly poor: the toughest neighborhoods of hard-hit cities like Elizabeth, Trenton, Bridgeport. Once or twice a stringer got wind that he'd materialized somewhere, but the neighborhoods where he appeared weren't easy or safe to navigate, and by the time someone got there he was on his way again, leaving behind talk of cures and second sight and people changed by his words. The inaccessibility of these places then made it hard for stringers to find and check for people who'd been "cured" or "changed by his words."
Kuni kept at it. One source said the miracle worker's people called him Jay and they all traveled together in a beat-up van. He sometimes preached in Spanish. He never took up collections, as other messiahs invariably did. One source said he had a real slow way of talking that "made you feel peaceful-like." Kuni said someone told him she thought he'd got his start in Camden. That'd be news, I said: getting your start in Camden.
I remember this conversation because it was the first time Kuni called him the Mysterious Stranger. I liked that. It was a very cool putdown. From then on, in the way that happens when someone anonymous acquires a handle, he became more real. I asked Kuni about him regularly, not because I planned to run a story but just so I could say, What's new with the Mysterious Stranger? It always made me smile.
It wasn't a nice smile. The term Mysterious Stranger had a derogatory, derisive overtone. It could even be code, indicating to those who moved in the antifundamentalist samizdat that you did too; you too resisted the dictatorship of the holytariat, worked for the overthrow of the Church-State.
The term was in vogue that year, thanks to a man I'm proud to say I loathed, one of the few men in terminally compromised, culturally homeless, morally destitute America who was evil enough to make the stump of my lefty conscience tingle.
The Reverend James Zebediah Sabbath embodied in every respect Christian America's long journey from the heathen wilderness of the mid-twentieth century into the Promised Land of the early twenty-first: a faith-based, morality-valuing, Bible-believing America, where theocracy and democracy were synonymous; where the executive, legislature, and judiciary were Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, distinct, omnipotent -- not to mention omniscient -- persons of the ruling triune God.
The Reverend had been Spiritual Adviser to three presidents, enjoyed the rank of two-star general as chaplain-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, and had twice been reappointed Spiritual Clerk of what he first dubbed the Supreme Court Under God. He was arguably one of the most powerful men in the nation -- certainly the CEO of fundamentalist Christianity, which by the second decade of Christ's Millennium was the only kind left standing.
Our paths had crossed twice. Once face-to-face -- for me, disastrously -- and once electronically, earlier that year, when the Reverend had achieved a decisive victory in a war he'd fought for decades: the conversion of that last nest of paganism in God's Chosen Land, Hollywood.
Hollywood had fought back. Hollywood had thrown everything it had at him, but finally, to use his favorite phrase, Hollywood had cried uncle. After a furious internal debate and scores of angry resignations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had invited the Reverend to host the first faith-based Academy Awards in history. | May 2006
Copyright © 2006 Tony Hendra
Tony Hendra, author of the mammoth bestseller Father Joe, attended Cambridge University, where he performed with Monty Pythons-to-be John Cleese and Graham Chapman. He served as editor in chief of Spy magazine, was an original editor of National Lampoon and also played Ian Faith in This is Spinal Tap. He has written for New York, Harper's, GQ, Vanity Fair, Men's Journal and Esquire. He lives with his wife and children in New York City.