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Whoopi outwits Devil Jazz

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Craig Forgrave's website claims Devil Jazz, his first novel, "unites for the first time anywhere: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, George and Ringo." The thing is, that same joke appeared in Sister Act. When you're using jokes from a decades old Whoopi Goldberg movie, it's a problem.

Another joke in the book involves the introduction of the inventor of the bumper sticker. The punchline? His name is Ronald Bumpersticker. That's the entire joke. You see, it's really unlikely the inventor of the bumper sticker would actually have named it after himself and not its function of a sticker on a bumper. Get it?

But here's the kicker: Devil Jazz actually isn't that bad. Despite some flat jokes, and despite clearly biting off a bit more than Forgrave can handle for his first novel, conceptually it isn't all that bad. Sure, the prose may be a little stilted, and the entire effort feels like a first novel, but Forgrave hits the mark just often enough to keep the reader interested.

Devil Jazz's plot follows its two main characters, Satan and a man who may be the reincarnation of Jesus, as they race to see who will take the souls of mankind. The Devil has pulled out all the stops in his campaign, including posing as a benevolent alien to tempt humanity with easy answers. At the same time, he has unleashed three of his favorite demons, Adolf Hitler, Marilyn Monroe and Vincent van Gogh, to raise a little hell in the ways they know best.

Jesus, or "J.C." as he prefers to be called, is a little less ambitious. When he first appears, he has no memory of his past, no idea where he's going, and no thoughts except knowledge of the world's end in a week. From there, he gains the aforementioned entourage and embarks on a quest of salvation.

The resulting storyline takes shots at everything from organized religion to heavy metal, youth violence, and good old American laziness. The jokes are mostly superficial, but occasionally a scattershot actually hits its targets.

Devil Jazz's shoots a bit high for Forgrave's ability. He has difficulty juggling the large cast so the characters mostly come off as one dimensional, existing only to advance the plot. In the same way, by trying to tip so many sacred cows in one go, the attacks seem more reflexive than anything else. Yes, politicians are idiots and even the noblest church-goer is easily corrupted. Saturday Night Live can make those same jokes. A good satire should go deeper, drawing its humor from the very base of the institutions it's mocking.

The story is imaginative, and Forgrave should be given credit for trying to tread some new ground. His inexperience writing novels comes through too clearly, a heavyhandedness dulling the impact of many of the book's scenarios.

Hopefully, Devil Jazz is just a practice run, and by his next book Forgrave will have dropped the bad jokes and gained the technical skills to truly support his imaginative concept.

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