LitStack Review: The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry
The Jesus Cow
Release Date: May 19, 2015
You know you’re reading a mighty special book when the two sentence prologue completely captivates:
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 The Jesus 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. Oh, there are other threads in the story – a neighbor hellbent but unequipped to save the world, a jackass of a societal rival, a potential love interest – but they would merely be short human interest stories were it not for the calf, and the frenzy that occurs once word gets out of its “miraculous” existence.
Ah, but while that intriguing story line may pull you in, it’s the characters populating the story that keep you hooked. How these characters are written is the true genius of this tale. Take, for example, our introduction to Billy, Harley’s best friend and de facto moral compass:
Billy was a decorated combat veteran whose wartime injuries had at one point put him flat on his back for the better part of a year. He and Harley were well along in their friendship before Billy shared the whole story. “Anybody who says they’re above it all has never been beneath it all,” he said by way of conclusion, then never spoke of it again. He lived surrounded by stacks of books and an innumerable census of cats in a single-wide trailer on a sliver of property purchased from Harley’s father during the years Harley was away at college in the city of Clearwater – an hour south of Swivel. Upon his return home, Harley resented the presence of the trailer at the far end of the pasture and by default its occupant, but one afternoon as he struggled to repair the frozen apron chain of his father’s manure spreader, the sky darkened and it was Billy blocking the sun. “As the worm gear turns, eh?” said Billy. The combination of literate humor and obscure manure-handling technology knowledge appealed to Harley, and a low-key conversation ensued. Now Harley considered Billy his best friend, although Harley never cared for the term, implying as it did that life was a pageant. Like Harley, Billy was also a bachelor. The two of them liked to get together and not talk much.
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. 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 Father Carl, is not hyperactively righteous, nor single-mindedly ignorant, nor a saint; she is simply a good person. Harley is not a rube nor a hayseed, but he is not a mover nor 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. Heck, as far as characters go, even the most stereotyped of them all, “avowed survival-of-the-fittest capitalist free marketer” Klute Sorensen, is still layered despite not being burdened by complexity or nuance.
But this emphasis on characterization does not mean that the narrative lacks depth. Faith, purpose, art, love – all of these heavy subjects are weighed, pondered, discussed. Faith especially – and not inconceivably, given the main subject – is examined, not with theologies or ideologies, but with simple, homespun wisdom. That salt-of-the-earth mentality permeates the narrative.
“Just as with your women, you attempt to render existence in terms of perfection,” said Billy. “Life is a rough approximation of things hoped for. You need to revel in the misfires. In the scars and dings. 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.”
Perhaps author Michael Perry is able to write with such a genuine voice because he lives in the midst of such a setting. While this is the first work of his I’ve read, some modest research turned up that he is (according to his website) a New York Times bestselling author, humorist, singer/songwriter, and intermittent pig farmer. Further research revealed that he 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 (The Jesus Cow is his eighth book, his essays and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Backpacker, Outside, Runner’s World, and Salon.com, and he is a contributing editor to Men’s Health magazine ), and touring with the band Long Beds – is a volunteer fireman, just like Harley Jackson.
Perhaps this is why The Jesus Cow is such a delightful book, full of wry humor, modest drama, authentic creatures – because the characters, conversations, thoughts, movements, truly are “real”. I can attest that they do ring true; having grown up in rural Iowa, and living most of my adult life in Minnesota (and my husband is from a small town in Wisconsin), I can definitely recognize many of the players in The Jesus Cow, and can appreciate just how honestly they are portrayed.
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