I am not sure how I heard about The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry. If I had to guess, I would say it was Shelf Awareness. But it was on my To Be Read (TBR) list for a while. Midwestern setting with a religious/faith twist? Yep, that seems like me.
Rather than purchase it, however, I decided to check out from the library using Overdrive (Sorry, but I have been on a bit of a binge on other books I am afraid).
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.
It turned out to be yet another book I was pulled in two directions about.
On one hand, it does a fine job of capturing the character and characteristics of Midwestern life. The close-knit community that can seem suffocating at times and yet still foster loneliness and a longing to escape. The petty politics and gossip yet the ability to rally around a cause and make a real impact.
And I really like the internal dialog of the lead character Harley Jackson. The way he is pulled toward politeness and even piety by the memory of his parents; their faithfulness and fundamental goodness. The way he feels connected the land and rhythms of his family and community.
But he also feels a pull to escape and be his own man. He leaves his parents faith, leaves town for college, and expands his horizons. But he ends up back at home never having graduated, working a factory job and raising beef cows on the side.
He feels the urge to be the bad guy, to be the angry jerk who lashes out, to be the arrogant boss type, but in the end he can’t do it. He wrestles with his doubts, feels guilty about his angst and worry but can’t stop. Life seems to just carry him along. So when he decides to cash in on the Jesus Cow you know he is in for a ride.
So far so good. But after awhile the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Perry has painted the picture but it starts to feel like a sitcom you might watch if nothing else is on. Kinda interesting but doesn’t really grab you or shake you.
The characters began to edge toward caricatures. The setting begins to seem paint by numbers. The meditations on faith and relationships feel like late night dorm conversations. And when the plot and emotions climax it seems a little too easy. Which is compounded by the neatly wrapped up ending.
On balance, however, I lean toward the positive side. It was an entertaining and easy read full of good-natured humor and thoughtful exploration of the relationships of small town America. A little too cute and neat? Sure, but not in an overbearing or heavy handed way. And in he end I liked Harley and he felt real. In fact, I could very much relate to some of his struggles and angst.
If you enjoy light-handed satire and humor and don’t need a lot of narrative drive or suspense you will enjoy The Jesus Cow. If you have lived in small town middle America you will chuckle at the accurate portrayal of the characters one finds there.
But like the Midwest, it can meander a bit and take its time getting to where it’s going.