The New Sins
David Byrne
(McSweeney's Books)

David Byrne has always been an artist in search of something bigger, something elusive, and full of wonders. He likes creating confusing, alternate realities (witness his movie, True Stories, or that early Talking Heads hit where he says directly to the listener: "This is not my beautiful house... This is not my beautiful wife... How did I get here?"). Since his Talking Heads days, he has dabbled in world music and his own art and photography.

Now, in The New Sins, Byrne takes on the vagaries and contradictions of faith and sin. Beautifully produced to resemble a hand-sized red leather bible, the book has an English text with a Spanish text when you flip it over, though each side features different photographs from Byrne. As far as the execution goes, it seems that Byrne's mission is too ambitious for his writing talents. It's not simply that Byrne's turning of the tables can get obvious after the first couple of pages, it's just that there's nothing really startling or prophetic like you'd expect from a project like this.

In fact, Byrne's prose lacks his musical zing altogether, as he's taken on the voice of a stoic educator. He comes off here as if he's trying too hard to write in a McSweeney's style (Besides McSweeney's-esque becoming a descriptive verb in the last year, I'm sure it won't be long before people start calling it something like "The McSweeney's School of Writing"). Still, I could imagine Dave Eggers writing something like this and making it vastly entertaining. He's good at doing that dual, straight man/funny man thing in his writing, whereas Byrne resorts to calling people "dumbass(es)," "ninnies," and "nincompoops."

Sadly, anyone who has read a few Jack Chick religious tracts will find more laughs in those phone-booth freebies than here. In fact, one of the few times Byrne hits the mark is in a later section called "What To Do in Emergencies," where Byrne explains something called The Butterfly Effect. The one consistently strong part of the book is the photography. Intriguing images of Virgin Marys, candy Peeps, bearded clowns, baby doll parts, Spanish store windows, and Jesus-like carrots alternate with close-ups of unknown textures (I think one's a steak, while at least one other is taken directly off a TV screen). As a whole, The New Sins is an interesting but disposable oddity.

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