The Final Testament of the Holy Bible

“He wasn't nothing special. Just a white boy. An ordinary white boy . . . just like 20 or 30 million other white boys in America." Mariaangeles, a young Puerto Rican single mother, is at first only mildly curious about Ben when he moves into the apartment across the hall. He works as a security guard. His place is a mess. He drinks beer and smokes weed and plays video games with her brother.

When he turns up at her lap dancing club, Mariaangeles gets him drunk and has sex with him. And that seems to be that - except that the next time she sees Ben he has "changed and become someone else. He had become something I couldn't even believe. And then I did. I believed."

So ends the first "testimony" of James Frey's oddly exhilarating new novel. As Mariaangeles drops the baton, it is taken up by Charles, the site manager at Ben's workplace. Still in shock, he describes the moment when an enormous glass panel, swinging from a crane, plummets and crushes his employee. Ben should not survive, but he does.

Put aside the vicious media blowback which followed reports that Frey had fabricated parts of the narrative: his semi-fictional memoir of 2003, A Million Little Pieces, remains for me an arresting piece of work. Never mind what was and wasn't true - it felt upsettingly honest. It made me sweat. It is still with me. Exactly the same goes for this new novel. It grabs you by the throat. The sheer narrative energy takes your breath away. There is an incessant, almost capricious sense of danger in his sentences - a feeling that he is not going to let you relax, that he could take you anywhere at any time.

As one "witness" hands over to the next, the documentary-style accounts gain a cumulative effect - narratively satisfying, but also a gift to a novelist with an uncluttered first-person prose style like Frey's. The site manager is followed by a hospital surgeon, and then we move on to Ben's family - his battered mother describes how the mystery of Ben's conception caused an enduring rift in her marriage.

The book overflows with biblical parallels and you detect a joyous relish in Frey as he unloads them. Ben raises himself up from his hospital bed, goes to live with the crack addicts and hobos in the tunnels beneath the New York subway. He begins to have increasingly debilitating epileptic fits, violent seizures during which "God speaks" to him. Still, he refuses to have people bow down before him and call him Messiah, answering only "If you say so" when they insist he must be divine.

He doesn't pray and he doesn't preach, yet calmly and quietly he unravels every long-held, so-called religious conviction. The Bible is "antiquated", simply the "words of writers. Men telling stories." Ben maintains that there is no afterlife, just this one life that we are living now, and he calls for people to use it wisely and with love. "Life, not death, is the great mystery you must confront," he says. When asked by his baffled followers where God's word is to be found, he answers: "In love. In the laughter of children. In a gift given. In a life saved . . . the fabric of our lives, our feelings, the people we live with, things we know to be real."

Even more tellingly - and you suspect that Frey knows how much will be made of this - Ben goes around having sex with anyone and everyone, male or female, "licking and sucking and fucking" in order to heal and cure. He cures Mariaangeles's crack habit with sex. He shows Judith, a fat and lonely virgin, how to take pleasure in her body. Asked by his angry fundamentalist brother Jacob to perform a "miracle", he elicits instant fear and disgust by snogging his friend Jeremiah at the family dinner table.

Although I wanted to enjoy the ride, I admit that I still had a few doubts. All the stuff about free love starts to feel a bit hippie-ish, old hat, even. I couldn't decide whether some of Ben's quasi-philosophical utterances were beautiful or just banal. And there was a moment about two-thirds of the way through the book when I began to feel that I had heard people say almost the same thing, in almost the same way, a few too many times.

Yet Frey is a fantastically persuasive storyteller and it is hard not to be moved by all these witnesses - some of them barely more than sketches, but all somehow convincingly real­ised, and united by this one, life-transforming experience. Ultimately, however, Frey's biggest achievement is the character of Ben. We only ever see him through the eyes of others, yet this "ordinary white boy" comes to seem so palpably present, so deeply alive, that the novel's final and inevitable climax feels quite brutal, like a real-life loss. l

Julie Myerson's next novel, "Then", will be published by Jonathan Cape in June

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible
James Frey
John Murray, 400pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special