Danish 13-year-old Nikolaj - aka Niko - is orphaned when his parents die in a car crash. Reared by his older sister Sanne - aka Sis - Niko becomes dependent on Sis’s love, and resorts to self-harm and violence to ensure the dependence is mutual. The downward spiral into self-loathing culminates in Niko’s battering his girlfriend, Silje, the consequences of which eventually cause Sis to commit suicide. At the lowest moment of Niko’s life, a strange man appears in his living room, claiming to be Jesus Christ …
Lars Husum’s debut is similar in tone to early work by Bret Easton Ellis (especially Less Than Zero) and Chuck Palahniuk. His protagonist, Niko, is a wilfully abrasive character intended to challenge conventional mores, as the potentially provocative title suggests. While his circumstances, and particularly the death of his parents at such a formative age, lend themselves to the reader’s sympathy, Niko is a bland kind of sociopath. A peeper and a stalker, he regularly provokes fights and mutilates himself.
All of this is perversely designed to strengthen the bond between Niko and his older sister, Sis, and Husum is effective in the early part of the novel at achieving his aim. The fact that Niko appears to lack the courage of his convictions, however, make him an irritating protagonist.
The fact that Niko’s mother was a much-loved pop star in her native Denmark plays a significant part in the story, especially near the end. It’s also quite convenient for Husum, given that Niko, who has in part inherited his mother’s fortune, has plenty of free time in which to indulge his navel-gazing.
In effect, we are presented with a bratty, self-absorbed rich kid with virtually no redeeming features other than his brutal honesty about his emotional and psychological shortcomings. This honesty, however, only reinforces those characteristics of Niko that were unlikeable to begin with.
Niko’s downward spiral into utter self-loathing finally reaches rock bottom when he batters his girlfriend, Silje, into a coma. When his long-suffering Sis hears the news, she finally gives up on Niko - and herself. Despite the fact that she is herself in a happy relationship, and has recently had a baby son, Sis commits suicide.
Shortly afterwards, Niko wakes up one morning to discover a hairy, sandal-wearing man in his apartment. The man tells Niko that he is Jesus Christ, and has come to help. Tough love is the order of the day.
In order to help himself, Niko must first help others. On Jesus’ advice, he leaves Copenhagen behind to move to Tarm, the rural part of Jutland where his mother grew up. Embraced by the locals, Niko establishes a team, or ‘family’, that will assist him in his ultimate goal - to rehabilitate the broken Silje.
Husum’s style is pleasingly direct, and not without a coarse but very effective black humour. The idea of dropping a Jesus Christ figure - Husum never confirms if the character is real or a figment of Niko’s imagination - into a modern city in a Western, secular world is a bold stroke, and throws up all manner of fascinating potential narrative strands.
Unfortunately, Husum fails to capitalise on the idea. The Christ character engages only fleetingly with Niko, and the conceit seems only half-realised. While the Christ character tells Niko that he is the Christ who ‘came with a sword’, for example, there is never any sense that there will be consequences for Niko if he fails to take Christ’s advice.
For that matter, and despite some superficial changes, Niko’s character hardly changes throughout the novel, a fact confirmed by the rather squalid finale. Nonetheless, and despite his reprehensible behaviour, and admitting to such, he appears to be universally loved by those he meets.
Niko isn’t particularly handsome, and he’s far from charming. Neither does he squander his money on his friends. In fact, we are given no good reason as to why people might want to spend time in his company, let alone actually like him.
It’s possible, of course, that Husum intends the novel to be a parody of the liberal Christian culture of contemporary Western civilisation. Hence the biker-style Jesus, and the Pollyanna characters who take the violent and self-absorbed Niko at his word when he asks for forgiveness. But while the novel is undoubtedly archly contrived, it lacks the persuasiveness of satire. Husum paints in broad strokes, and few of his characters have the kind of depth that might make them convincing acolytes to Niko’s very narrow definition of what constitutes redemption.
Another irritating aspect of the novel, the number of coincidences it contains, could also be considered an element of an archly contrived satire, and it’s probably best to steer clear of accusing a writer of MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST of introducing deus ex machina. Unfortunately, this novel thrives on coincidence. Denmark has a population of roughly five million people, but Niko regularly bumps into characters on the street, or in wine shops, or finds that they have friends in common. The fact that Silje is a singer with a band would be sufficient to establish a meeting of minds when she and Niko first meet, given the fact that Niko’s mother was a famous pop singer; but Silje is not just a singer, she is the singer in a band that do cover versions of Niko’s mother’s songs.
MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST is a potentially subversive conceit swamped by a self-indulgent and repetitive narrative. With a stronger editor on board, the novel could well have said important things about liberal Christianity in Western culture, and the West’s attitude to religion in general. At the very least it might have been an entertaining novel. As it stands, however, MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST is a heavy-handed satire that lacks the wit and depth to truly offend or inspire. - Declan Burke
MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST is published by Portobello Books.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.