Book review

Earthy, mystical telling of John the Baptist tale

By Rich Barlow
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2009

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The image lingers from Sunday school or Bible readings in church: the camel’s hair-and-leather-belt getup, the diet of locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist, in all his ascetic, prophetic, fanatic glory, cuts a memorable physical figure in the gospels, and he got a little beefcake thrown on his frame via Charlton Heston’s portrayal in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,’’ but he remains the second fiddle to Jesus in all of these tellings.

Lay people might be surprised to learn that there exist several sources about John outside the Bible, notably the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus and the scriptures and traditions of the Mandaeans, a tiny, Middle Eastern sect of Baptist devotees. Some of these sources regard John as equal to or even more important than Jesus. Novelist Brooks Hansen stitches these divergent strands into a difficult but satisfying tapestry in “John the Baptizer,’’ his imagined account of the saint’s life and death.

Hansen, author or co-author of the acclaimed novels “The Chess Garden’’ and “Boone,’’ constructs a tale that by turns is graphically earthy and opaquely mystical, with a stray bit of humor tossed in. (“He called Herod’s wife a whore,’’ one jailer says to explain John’s arrest. Replies another, “And the whores want an apology?’’) The profusion of names in the first half of the book can be stupefying, a thoughtfully appended list of characters notwithstanding, and the pacing is slow at times. In fairness, that’s because Hansen has done his research diligently; he describes the environment in which John preached, particularly the rule of the corrupt Herods, Rome’s stooges in Palestine.

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, and the Herod family allows Hansen to indulge his talent for the gross. We’ll skip the details of the final illness of Herod the Great, father of Herod Antipas, who famously separated John’s body from his head at the request of his stepdaughter, Salome. Suffice it to say that you don’t want to read the elder Herod’s flesh-eaten, bowel-obstructed finale over your morning coffee and Cheerios.

Against the decadent Herodian backdrop stands the adult, prophetic John, for whom “it did not matter one’s command of the [Jewish] Law, or the house to which one belonged, or even the tribe. John said all that mattered was the purity of one’s heart, which could be attained by repentance alone, borne out by deeds of kindness, righteousness, and charity. . . . [T]o those who had little, those without voice or purse, John offered hope.’’

So much so, in fact, that the crowds John draws in turn draw the worried eyes of the authorities. It is in recounting this part of the tale, especially Hansen’s masterful run-up to and depiction of the prophet’s death, that “John the Baptizer’’ takes off. From Salome’s famous dance that enchanted Herod into granting her the Baptist’s head to the execution itself, Hansen’s version is tense and artfully conceived. His inclusion of a mystical Mandaean story about John’s end complements rather than contradicts the Biblical account.

He reports a legend that Salome wound up decapitated by ice after plunging into a frozen river. John, with his message of repentance and forgiveness, might not approve of readers finding satisfaction in such a gruesome fate, but fans of irony surely will.

Rich Barlow can be reached at


Norton, 391 pp., $24.95

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