Life is suddenly full of drama for low-key Harley Jackson: A woman in a big red pickup has stolen his bachelor’s heart, a Hummer-driving predatory developer is threatening to pave the last vestiges of his family farm, and inside his barn is a calf bearing the image of Jesus Christ. His best friend, Billy, a giant of a man who shares his trailer house with a herd of cats and tries to pass off country music lyrics as philosophy, urges him to avoid the woman, fight the developer, and get rich off the calf. But Harley takes the opposite tack, hoping to avoid what his devout, dearly departed mother would have called “a scene.”
Then the secret gets out—right through the barn door, and Harley’s “miracle” goes viral. Within hours pilgrims, grifters, and the media have descended on his quiet patch of Swivel, Wisconsin, looking for a glimpse (and a percentage) of the calf. Does Harley hide the famous, possibly holy calf and risk a riot, or give the people what they want—and raise enough money to keep his land—and, just possibly, win the woman and her big red pickup truck?
Harley goes all in, cutting a deal with a major Hollywood agent that transforms his little farm into an international spiritual theme park—think Lourdes, only with cheese curds and t-shirts. Soon, Harley has lots of money . . . and more trouble than he ever dreamed.
The Jesus Cow is a novel that I have been waiting for. I enjoy reading novels that use absurd elements to explore humanity. (For example, the bug / vermin in The Metamorphosis. Or, in the case of The Jesus Cow, the calf bearing the image of the Son of God.) I do want to say upfront that you cannot take the religious component seriously while reading this novel. I know that some people may not be comfortable with the religious content or how it is handled. I totally understand. For me, I read this novel with the understanding that it is not about religion. Rather, "religion" is used to explore humanity and show the absurd direction that it can take. (Cue: spiritual theme park and Harley making money off his "holy" calf.)
From the moment that I read the title of this book, I knew that there would be humor in it. And there is plenty of humor to go around in The Jesus Cow! Better yet, it comes packaged in a very well-written novel. (Know that I, the English major, rarely say this.) There are many, many lines that I reread and underlined or put in brackets because I love the way Perry worded them. For example, Perry describes one of Harley's past relationships in one sentence: "Harley himself had once named a Holstein heifer calf after a high school girlfriend; sadly the relationship ended before the calf was weaned" (P. 15 of the ARC). I love this sentence because it says so much about Harley's relationship in a unique way that fits into the context. Perry doesn't say something generic that could speak to any protagonist; instead, he describes Harley's relationship in a way that draws from pieces of Harley's life. In a way that I can imagine Harley himself thinking about his past relationship.
I also like how different characters in the town take turns narrating their story. As I mentioned in my review of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (read my review here), such sketches give us insight into characters coming from different backgrounds and allow us to build a deeper understanding of the culture of a place and how it influences the people that live there. In The Jesus Cow, we see how small town life has contributed to the development of each character, how each character reacts to their environment, and how each character, in turn, influences the lives of other characters. For example, if I had only learned about Klute from Harley's perspective, I might have dismissed Klute as a greedy developer out to get Harley. By reading about Klute's story from Klute's own perspective, I could sympathize more with his situation. These are but two of the many characters in the small town of Swivel.
The Jesus Cow is a highly entertaining and well written novel that explores themes about humanity.
Content (contains potential spoilers)
- Don't read this unless you're prepared for religion not to be taken seriously. You can't when the Son of God is stenciled on the calf's side.
- Some language.
- A lot of absurdity in the process of exploring humanity.
- *** Note: I started my Teach For America summer institute before I was able to finish reading this novel, so I ended up skimming / flipping through a good chunk of the book. At this time, the content does not reflect the whole of the novel. I did very much enjoy what I have read of the novel and do plan on returning to it to savor it at a slower pace. I will update my content list then! ***
A copy was provided by Harper Collins for review
About the Author
Michael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485. Perry’s essays and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Backpacker, Outside, Runner’s World, Salon.com, and Men’s Health magazine. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an intermittent pig farmer.
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