The Bible Salesman: A Novel
Date Published: September 23, 2009
Number of Pages: 272
Print Price: $5.60
eBook Price: $
North Carolina, 1950. Preston Clearwater, a petty criminal involved in car theft, picks up a hitchhiker near a small mountain town. The hitchhiker, twenty-year-old Henry Dampier, is earning his living as a door-to-door Bible salesman.
Preston immediately spots that Henry is naïve – Henry is accurately described as a boy – and decides he can make use of him. He easily persuades Henry that he – Preston – is an undercover FBI agent and recruits Henry as his deputy, sworn to secrecy. He then has Henry drive stolen cars from pick up spots (Preston has done the actual stealing) to drop off points (where they are repainted for resale), while Preston travels behind him in his own, legal car. The two travel through the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and back – increasingly interacting and engaging in adventures.
Henry, raised a fundamentalist Christian, is not quite as straight-arrow as he seems – he receives his Bibles free-of-charge from a mission society – by vaguely posing as an itinerant preacher – then razors out the page that says they are to be donated before selling them. Nonetheless, while thinking of himself as an opportunistic salesman (he continues to sell Bibles on the side throughout the story), he is deeply caring about his customers, ending up helping them in various (and sometimes humorous) ways.
One has to be of my generation or earlier to realize how profoundly naïve a twenty-year-old could be. As he reads his Bibles, deeply immersed in his fundamentalist background, he struggles with things like the two different versions of the creation story in Genesis. Understandably preoccupied with sex, he is startled by some of the old testament readings, as when he reads about Abram and Hagar:
Henry saw that ‘go in unto’ meant go to bed with her and have a sex relation. It was as plain as day. He kept reading. Abraham did it. God wrote it and didn’t worry a whiff about it, not a whiff. Nobody was bothered by it.
A good portion of the narrative is chapters dating from the 1930s and 40s, as Henry grows up in a large, amiable clan under the care of his loving, Christian Aunt Dora and his worldly, skeptical Uncle Jack. All of these characters are portrayed sympathetically, but some of the most real and touching scenes are those involving Uncle Jack, who “never saw a sad day in his life.”
That night Henry… dreamed about Uncle Jack…. In this dream, they were walking along a wagon path to check rabbit boxes. Uncle Jack was striding fast and Henry was skipping along, trying to keep up, and Uncle Jack suddenly stopped, turned, squatted, laughed, grabbed both sides of Henry’s head and shook. … (T)he shaking made Henry’s neck tickle. Henry woke up laughing….
These are characters straight out of Flannery O’Conner’s world (though, now that I live in the South, I realize that her world is not as uniquely hers as I once thought). At first I thought that Edgerton had wisely resisted the impulse to write like O’Conner – nobody can do that. Edgerton fills in the details of his characters much more than O’Conner usually did, so that the impression is less surreal. But towards the end the book, which has been treated as a comedy, takes a rather strange and dark turn. O’Conner could get away with such strange turns because she was writing on a bedrock of faith – if one doesn’t understand her on the first reading, one can look to that bedrock, certain that she has something to say, some reason for saying it. With Edgerton one is not so certain that a meaning is there – one is left with an odd impression that he may have had a bad day, or (as sometimes happens) have tired of the book – books frequently begin beautifully and end poorly.
Be that as it may, The Bible Salesman is highly readable, with much of interest. And perhaps I am misjudging – perhaps we shall discover that there is bedrock beneath Mr. Edgerton’s work.
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Publisher: Back Bay Books
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
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