Don’t be misled. Granted, Danish writer Lars Husum’s first novel, My Friend Jesus Christ, is about Jesus Christ stepping into someone’s life and urging them along a path of redemption. Yet it is not in any sense Christian fiction or even really religious in the common sense of the term.
My Friend Jesus Christ tells the story of Nikolaj Jensen, or Niko, as he’s known to friends and family. When we meet him, he is struggling with a never-ending and ever growing pit and ache in his stomach. Although Niko’s mother was a nationally beloved pop singer in Denmark, she and Niko’s father died in a car accident when Niko was 13. He was cared for by his older sister, who also manages and invests the earnings from their mother’s songs. But Niko’s fear of losing her increases as she begins living her own life, gets married and has a family. Niko increases his carousing and fighting, gaining the reputation of “an up-and-coming young psychopath.” His path of self-destruction includes suicide attempts, trying to erase that knotting pain in his stomach.
Niko believes things may finally be changing for the better when he meets Silje, who turns out to be the singer in a tribute band to Niko’s mother. Niko falls deeply in love with her but can’t control the demons inside. During a minor argument he ends up savagely beating Silje and then attempts suicide in his sister’s home. His actions eventually drive his sister to suicide herself, an event that crushes him.
The knot is tearing down everything to make room for itself. Walls, rooftops, floors, everything is being smashed to pieces in the loudest possible way. Suddenly the noise and pain stop, because what’s the point of giving me a stomach ache when I no longer function? All is silent, the demolition is over, the knot is everywhere and I am no longer me. I am the knot.
It’s at this point that Jesus Christ steps in. Actually, he breaks in. Niko wakes up early one morning to the sound of a prowler in his apartment. Niko sees a man who’s “tough, long-haired, bearded and big and strong, and [who] oozes confidence” entering his bathroom. When the man comes out , Niko clocks him in the head with an ashtray. Niko meet Jesus, or at least someone who claims to be Jesus and there to make Niko “a better man.”
This encounter reflects part of the tone of My Friend Jesus Christ. Husum takes a light, at times humorous, touch to the issues Niko faces. At the same time, the sparse language of the work, translated from the Danish by Mette Petersen, retains a balance of seriousness and sincerity. That quality may reflect Husum’s time as a screenwriter prior to the book, first published in Denmark in 2008 as My Friendship with Jesus Christ and now in its first English translation.
Although Niko is relatively convinced that Jesus is a “nutter,” when Jesus touches him the knot disappears. Jesus advises Niko to move from Copenhagen to Tarm, the village in Jutland where his parents grew up. Niko’s mother never returned to the town and refused offers to perform there after running away with Niko’s father to escape her own abusive father. Figuring he has little or nothing left to lose, Niko moves there.
Once in Tarm, Niko quickly comes to treasure the area and makes a handful of friends and acquaintances, including a childhood friend who shows up at his door, a promiscuous hairdresser, and an attractive Jehovah’s Witness who comes to Niko’s door. Acting again on the advice of Jesus (or the “nutter”), Niko convinces his friends, a group he calls “NATO,” to return with him to Copenhagen to help him try and right the wrongs he’s done. With a variety of twists, turns and complications, the group devotes itself to that mission with Niko getting occasional advice — and even some assistance in a fight — from Jesus.
My Friend Jesus Christ is about a search for individual redemption, not how “Jesus saves.” If anything, ardent Christians might take offense at the way Jesus is portrayed a couple times. And, like Niko, the reader gets hints that the evidence supports the man’s claims that he is Jesus but we are never actually sure if he isn’t a lunatic.
Husum seems at his best in describing Niko before he meets Jesus, doing a first-rate job of portraying a soul in agony. That effort, though, makes some of the balance of the book seem a bit of a misfire. Niko’s easy acceptance of the idea of moving to Tarm and his mollification there and later don’t quite fit the self-destructive and tormented Niko of the first third of the book. Likewise, at times events in Copenhagen seem a bit too much like a blithe excursion than the struggle of an anguished soul. Additionally, although the ending is certainly suited to a story about a search for redemption, it is a bit confusing.
Despite those flaws, My Friend Jesus Christ entertains in its own idiosyncratic way.