Book Review: Under Tiberius
by Nick Tosches
Little, Brown, 2015
For some reason known only to the god of bad, pompous novelists, Nick Tosches decides to open his new book, Under Tiberius, with a scene starring himself. “Several years ago,” he tells us. “in the spring of 2000, I was spending my days in the Vatican, studying several unique manuscripts in the course of my research for a novel.” One day, while being escorted by a “kindly old prelate,” he comes across a heap of “leathern tubes that seemed to be countless in their dark wooden places of rest in the wall that seemed to be endless.” Tosches picks up a codex at random, his old guide glances at it and has a dramatic, instantaneous reaction:
“Tristissimus hominum,” he whispered. He repeated the phrase, no longer in a distracted whisper: “Tristissimus hominem. ‘The gloomiest of men,’” he translated. He seemed stunned. “This is a book about Tiberius,” he said. “By someone who knew him. Knew him.”
(By the same reasoning, I guess, if I say that Richard Nixon was “a hang-dog SOB,” we must have been golf buddies. Golf buddies)
“It was as if,” Tosches writes, “he had discovered something that made every other discovery in the last two thousand years seem as nothing.”
The most charitable reaction to preposterous nonsense like this is protracted, politely stifled snickering, but Tosches isn’t finished by a long shot. After all, if you’re going to try to out-do Dan Brown at combining historical stupidity with authorial vanity, you’re going to have to put in the long hours. Still, I bet you can guess the very next thing that saintly old prelate says, can’t you? Yep: “you must say nothing of this.”
Secret societies, collapse of Western civilization, killer albino monks played by Paul Bettany. What, were you born yesterday?
Two days later, the prelate meets with Tosches’ stand-in for himself in a secluded cafe and tells him that he had the two pages he ripped out of the priceless 2000-year-old codex tested: “The frail scraps had been exactingly examined by transmission electron microscope, by scanning electron microscope, by ion and electron microprobes, by energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometer.” You know, the works – just the sorts of things you’d expect an elderly Vatican librarian to know how to get done in two days without question, delay, detection, or possibility of error.
Oh yes: he also scanned every page of the old codex (did he lug a scanner down into the dusty catacomb? Did he take the entire codex to the nearest Kinko’s, making a mental note to paste back in the two pages he tore out for, apparently, no reason? Does Tosches know that the Vatican libraries had checkpoints, theft prevention, and security cameras in 2000? The text is silent), and he’s entrusting it to Tosches because – brace yourself – he’s a big fan of Tosches’ work. “Give it to the world,” the old priest says.
A certain element of absurdity is incumbent on most fiction, of course, and the Grand Setup has a long history in potboilers. Many a narrator had his tale from one who had no business to tell it, and the far-fetched framing device would be a boring enough affair if it were confined to prosaic expedients like Doctor Watson’s famously bottomless battered tin dispatch box at Charing Cross. But there are limits even in farce, and it’s hard to imagine many readers elbow-stroking their way through the sheer self-indulgent ridiculousness of Tosches’ opening gambit here. One imagines they’ll soldier on in hopes of a corker of a story once we get to the rest of the book, which is the story from the mystery codex, the first-century memoir written by Gaius Fulvius Falconius, speechwriter for the emperor Tiberius, to his grandson. Falconius relates how he met a half-crazed Judean thief named Jesus and embarked with him on a town-to-town con game designed to fleece the credulous by convincing them that Jesus is the demigod Messiah long predicted ’round these parts. Surely the idiotic hey-what’s-this-wacky-old-codex opening gambit of Under Tiberius will be redeemed by the novel itself?
Nope. Not even for a single page. Instead, Falconius appears to know, know not Tiberius but rather the smear job Suetonius wrote about him eighty years after he died. Suetonius starts off characterizing Tiberius as the gloomiest of men and then pulls out every ad hominem (or is it hominum? Tosches’ Vatican librarian couldn’t tell the difference, and dang it, neither can I!) attack in the hack’s playbook, all of them dutifully repeated by Falconius (with asinine, windbag elaborations courtesy of our author, one sadly suspects):
It is difficult to accept him as capable of love or happiness. Perverse pleasures from perverse lusts, yes. What we call love, happiness, no. It may be that these are things that none of us knows. It may be that they are chimeras dreamt by us that we sometimes deceive ourselves into glimpsing during our waking hours. We long most for what we have never had and will never have.
Soon enough, Falconius is banished to Judea and runs into this Jesus character, who uses a primitive version of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to bring a “dead” boy back to life, who’s really fond of masturbation, and who’s prone to cheap-seats philosophizing that would be deliciously, John Barth-style cutting if Tosches actually knew it was cheap-seats philosophizing:
“We all wish each other good night and sweet dreams,” he said. “But are sweet dreams to be had by us?”
For lack of an answer, or words of any kind, I forced the ghost of a stillborn dismal laugh.
“That is what the Book is,” said he. “The Book and all its curses are doomings and prophecies. It is the Book of Bad Dreams.”
“Or simply the Book of Dreams.”
“Which is to say that it is the Book of Life.”
“One and the same.”
“Would you pay for a sweet dream?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“And for the idle promise of one?”
“No,” I said.
“Yet that is what we sell,” he said, “and grow rich in the doing.”
Tosches’ Jesus breaks out this kind of dreck virtually every time he opens his mouth. Fifty pages of this claptrap would be bad enough; after 315 pages of it, you’ll be downright eager to crucify this boring moron.
The strangest thing about Under Tiberius is also the saddest and most irritating thing about it: at no point in this book does Tosches seem aware of how many times this book has been written already in the last hundred years. Nobody’s obliging him to make allusions to Anthony Burgess or Nikos Kazantzakis or Robert Silverberg or any of a hundred others who’ve given us better-researched, better-plotted, and better-written versions of the Jesus-with-feet-of-clay subversion shtick. But if Tosches had spared some time from rummaging in those scandalous Vatican basements (hey! What’s this?) to glance at some of those earlier novels, Under Tiberius might not have ended up quite so vain and tiresome. As it is, this Gospel According to Saint Nick should have remained in its catacomb.