When Harley Jackson walks into his barn on Christmas Eve to find a newborn calf with the image of Jesus imprinted on its flank, he responds as any reticent bachelor farmer might. He sighs, “Well, that’s trouble.”
But Harley’s friend and neighbor, Billy, who lives in a trailer with his books and cats and occasionally tromps over to Harley’s place in his oversized parka and orange crocs, sees potential in the miraculous cash cow. He takes one look at “Jesus rendered in black-and-white splotches like clip-art” and advises Harley to “get a lawyer … and start printin’ T-shirts.”
Normally, brouhaha — religious or otherwise — is something Harley avoids, but when the miracle visage is observed by Dixie the letter carrier, who then Instagrams a photo of the calf, uploads it to Facebook, tweets it to #JESUSCOW, then e-mails it to local TV stations, Harley is forced into a commercial enterprise he’d rather avoid.
After successful memoirs such as “Population: 485” and “Truck: A Love Story,” this is Michael Perry’s first novel for adults, and it’s a good one. The tale, set in the small town of Swivel, Wis., is laugh-out-loud funny and propelled by plot lines that come together in an explosive climax.
One of the story lines concerns Carolyn Sawchuck, a failed academic and vehement environmentalist who has alienated the town’s more socially lazy residents. While Carolyn works surreptitiously as a one-woman environmental cleanup crew, Billy and Harley, with the help of an International Talent Agency, market the Jesus Cow. Their plan? To sell enough religious paraphernalia sporting the calf’s picture to be able to buy back Harley’s father’s farmland, which developer Klute Sorenson has turned into a wasteland of unoccupied split-levels.
It’s an uneasy time for Harley and Carolyn, and for all the characters who seek love and direction — spiritual and otherwise. Carolyn is an outcast. Maggie is a devout Catholic widow who operates a junkyard. (The work, she figures, provides her “the momentum to persist” after her husband’s death.) Harley meets and finds love with Mindy, a self-proclaimed “hippie chick in work boots,” who, upon scattering a mob of overzealous Jesus Cow pilgrims by brandishing a Ruger Redhawk .44 mag on their second date, wins the bachelor’s heart — but then soon breaks it.
Given that the alleged miracle occurs in a manger on Christmas Eve, given the religious references, I worried that the novel would be snarky. But it’s not. It’s funny and deep and sympathetic.
The characters are flawed human beings trying to do the right thing — as we all are. “I don’t have it,” Harley thinks as he looks out over his yard amazed and humbled at the crowd of believers, “but I’m happy they do.”
Christine Brunkhorst, a Minneapolis writer and reviewer, teaches English at St. Thomas Academy.