Full disclosure; author Vincent Czyz is a dear friend and a frequent contributor to our monthly Readers Responses. Among his many qualities; he is a wonderful conversationalist and debater on all things, a fine dinner guest and an impeccable dresser. We have supported each other’s work for over a decade now (that is hard to believe); he as a purveyor of fiction and a novelist, mine as whatever you call this, as well as an author and one-time novelist. I like Vincent. This much is true. But I absolutely love his new book, The Christos Mosaic, a page-turning masterpiece of a thriller with more than an undertone of controversial reimagining of biblical history. It will challenge your beliefs and keep you on the edge of your seat; a pretty damn enviable balancing act.
It is strange for us to have books published within a few weeks of each other, mine a pop culture treatise on one of the seminal records of our childhood, Shout It Out Loud—The Story Of KISS’s Destroyer And The Making Of An American Icon, and his long-awaited entertaining polemic on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and the sinister underbelly of black market antiquities throughout the backstreets of Turkey and Egypt. We celebrated this welcomed anomaly at the historical Algonquin Round Table last month in the heart of NYC. It was a magical touchstone for me, and I dare say, for him. Vincent worked hard on this book for more years than he cares to remember and it is quite simply a triumph.
Having researched and penned a controversial book on the subject, released in 2002, Trailing Jesus—A HolylandJournal, and since have engaged my wit and wisdom against Vince’s considerable barrage of wonderfully buttressed factoids about First Century myths and the origins of Christianity, I looked forward to The Christos Mosaic with bated breath. This, I assumed, and rightly so, would be the culmination of my friend’s incredible journey, both personally and professionally—and certainly spiritually—to put down once and for all the inner conflict of the intellectual pursuit of truth versus the comfortable blanket of faith. I came to know that journey well. It is a difficult one for anyone, let alone a writer to make, and then dare to put down for posterity; but to do so in the engagingly penetrating novel form—replete with action, intrigue, sex, violence, and mystery—is as immense an effort as one can expect from art.
Vincent lived in Istanbul, Turkey, off and on for seven years, teaching English at several foreign universities as a burgeoning novelist, much like his protagonist and the novel’s hero, as well as its moral center, Drew. But when pressed at our Algonquin dinner if the character was autobiographical, he demurred, assuring me Drew was indeed a work of complete fiction, and in fact the characters in Christos were more fictionalized than any of his other work, which includes the published collection of brilliantly evocative short stories, Adrift In A Vanishing City. However, like the places and characters that stimulate Adrift, Christos puts the reader on Istanbul’s every street corner—the cafés, bars and apartments—awash in the sights, sounds and even the smells of the city, and the colorful language and mannerisms of its inhabitants. (Vincent even went as far as providing English phonetics to bring the reader into the pronunciation of the Turkish language that lends an authentic air to the richly rewarding dialogue.)
Here is one of many favorite passages of Christos in which Vincent puts the reader squarely inside the claustrophobic bustle of Cairo’s largest marketplace, Khan Al-Khalili: “Tourists, merchants, boys carrying trays of tea in their hands or long pallets stacked with round loaves of bread on their heads all fought for position in dusty, often-unpaved streets. With some of these narrow byways, a car was not an option. Sellers had set up their tables so that even pedestrians had to pick their way through.
They were stuck behind a man in a turban who was pushing a cart with wooden wheels. The cart was topped by a wood-fed oven with a tall pipe. The man, who was having difficulty maneuvering around tables piled with wares, was selling roasted yams.
And then there were the flies. Smaller, faster than the ones Drew was used to. They were everywhere. You could wave them away, but they’d settle right back on you—generally around your eyes and mouth drawn to the moisture.”
This is the tool Vincent uses so well to weave his stirring tale; the backdrop, the people; the grimy, pulsing humanity. It engulfs our hero, Drew. He must navigate through the density of his surroundings, the recalcitrance of his intellectual opponents, and the villainy of those who value profit over discovery and myth over truth.
Drew is a seeker, like Vincent. He is the seeker in all of us, who must grapple, frustratingly so, as the evolution of deduction gnaws at the comfort of our traditions. Not coincidentally, Drew is introduced in the novel as a precocious college student challenging the norm and using his literate skills to eviscerate what is accepted knowledge about the beloved and reverential Saint Augustine, providing the reader with the intellectual corner in which Drew will come out fighting and keep fighting throughout his adventure, even when the noose is tightened on an ancient but unfolding mystery.
And the unraveling of that mystery, some two-thousand millennia long, is both shocking and inspiring, not unlike my favorite of the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas quotations attributed to the historical Jesus; “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the arguments presented through the evidence discovered, hinted at, debated over, and eventually unearthed in Christos are not hyperbolic and provocative merely to play on our most deeply held beliefs for dramatic purposes. They are carefully presented through painstaking research and sound analysis without embellishment. It really is hard to fathom how Vincent crammed all of it in, but he did, and he did it well.
Ultimately what my dear friend has created here in The Christos Mosaic is more than a novel; it is an impeccably framed thriller that will hopefully spark new discussions and provide insight into the future of Christian thought and study for the new century.