LitStack Recs: Author -Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan & The Jesus Cow

by Lauren Alwan

The Jesus Cow, by Michael Perry

On Christmas Eve itself, the bachelor Harley Jackson stepped into his barn and beheld there illuminated in the straw a smallish newborn bull calf upon whose flank was borne the very image of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“Well,” said Harley,”that’s trouble.”

And thus begins TheJesus Cow, a whimsical, sensible, enjoyable book full of Midwestern flavor and wisdom.

The story is pretty straightforward:  a bachelor farmer near the small town of Swivel, Wisconsin must deal with the fallout when the markings on his newly born calf strongly resemble the image of Jesus.  That’s it. 

But while that story line may pull you in, it’s the characters populating the story that keep you hooked. Under author Michael Perry’s deft touch, the characters in The Jesus Cow move beyond the expected rural cliché without stumbling into the territory of literary angst. Harley’s best friend Billy is a philosopher, but he is not backwater Buddha. The woman who runs the local junkyard, although she still pines for her long dead husband and spends more time at St. Jude’s Catholic Church than its priest, is not hyperactively righteous, nor single-mindedly ignorant, nor a saint; she is simply a good person.

 Harley himself is not a rube nor a hayseed, but neither is he a mover or a shaker; if he can’t fix a problem with a wrench (or by smacking the solenoid of his rust-pocked Silverado truck with a ball-peen hammer stored beneath the seat), he’d rather just ignore it, hoping it will pass. Yet he has a pragmatic intelligence and a conscience, and he wants to do the right thing, even if it’s not the easiest thing. 

Yet this emphasis on characterization does not mean that the narrative lacks depth, either. Faith, purpose, art, love – all of these heavy subjects are weighed, pondered, discussed, often with  a downright humorous touch. Faith especially is examined, not with theologies or ideologies, but with simple, homespun wisdom, such as what Billy imparts to an exasperated Harley when discussing relationships:

“You need to develop a taste for regret.  It’s the malt vinegar of emotions – drink it straight from the bottle and it’ll eat yer guts.  Add a sprinkle here and there and it puts a living edge on things.”

Author Michael Perry was born and raised in New Auburn, Wisconsin (population 548), educated at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire(Eau Claire itself having a population of 67,545), and currently lives in rural Wisconsin, where he – along with pig farming, writing and touring with a local band- is a volunteer fireman, just like Harley Jackson. Perhaps this is why The Jesus Cow is such a genuinely delightful book, full of wry humor and modest drama – because the characters, conversations, thoughts, movements, are something that the author has not merely conjured, but has experienced. Having grown up in such an environment, I can attest to the authenticity of the characters – and reactions – in this space.

And I can say with conviction, even if you know nothing of small town Midwestern values, you will enjoy The Jesus Cow.  Come for the story, stay for the characters, and along the way, be ready to have a whole heap of fun.

—Sharon Browning

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