Herod the Great, serving time in Hell, tells the story of his life in the latest novel from Smith (Confessions of a Presidential Speechwriter, 2014, etc.).
One of the worst villains of the New Testament, King Herod, tries to do penance in one of the lower reaches of Hell by telling the story of the “soap opera” of his own life—including stories of his elaborately crazy family members and of famous Romans and Judeans (including a certain Yeshua, son of Joseph and Mary). In his infernal afterlife, Herod has infinite time to think about his legacy. He reflects on the fact that the Gospels will forever link him to the “slaughter of the innocents,” in which he ordered the deaths of every male child up to 2 years old. Herod fiercely contests these written records, however, including those originating long after his death; he’s well-aware of how Hollywood has portrayed him as well. From his perspective, he gave his people a golden age: “I aggregated the largest kingdom the Jews would ever occupy,” he tells readers. “I negotiated my way through the Roman civil wars and provided the Jews with more freedom throughout the Roman Empire than they had at any other time.” In 21 chapters packed with well-researched details, Smith crafts a work of wry, postmodern historical fiction that grows stronger as it develops, taking in not only Herod’s descendants and heirs, but also the entire history of Christianity. (Highlights include some spirited contributions by the spirit of Henry VIII, who’s also serving time in Hell.) The plot structure allows Smith to use a full range of time periods and colorful characters; his portrayal of the dynamic between Antony and Cleopatra is especially well-done. However, to his credit, he makes sure that his loud, imperious Herod is always firmly at center stage.
A vivid, provocative and memorably unconventional portrait of one of Christianity’s bogeymen and an invigorating look at the history of Christianity itself.