Wednesday, June 3, 2015

‘The Jesus Cow’ Fizzles

I wanted to like Michael Perry’s debut novel, The Jesus Cow. I really did. I ordered it the minute I heard it was being released.

I could clearly imagine the acquisition meeting at the publishing house: “Hey, this guy’s got all those best-selling memoirs under his belt – funny as hell – a YA book, and a nationally syndicated radio program. Three live humor albums – loved Never Stand Behind A Sneezing Cow, didn’t you? – big online presence. It’s a no-brainer! What could possibly go wrong?”

What went wrong is that the book is terribly uneven. The prologue, chapters 1-3 and 20-23 are very funny and their pace is lively. The rest of the 31 chapters and the
epilogue unfortunately are not.

The Jesus Cow begins:

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.”

He calls his best friend, Billy, who has “a beard the size of an otter.” Billy lives in a trailer on Harley’s property: “The two of them liked to get together and not talk much.” Harley shows Billy the calf and asks him what he thinks. “Get a lawyer,” said Billy. “And start printing T-shirts.”

But Harley has been raised (here in Swivel, Wisconsin, population once as high as 562) not to “make a scene.” He tries to keep the calf a secret, even rubs black shoe polish over the image which the mother cow (whose name is Tina Turner) promptly licks off.

Great start but then for the next 130 pages, nothing much happens. Instead, the author turns his attention to introducing his characters, one by one. The Kirkus Review was kind enough to call them, “small-town characters out of central casting” rather than stereotypes. There’s Klute Sorenson, the strutting, scheming, bloviating developer, hyped-up on “Stomp Your Way To Success” motivational books and tapes. He wants Harley’s farm. There’s the Reverend Gary at the Church of the Roaring Lamb; Carolyn Sawchuck, the supposed environmentalist, who is secretly stashing used motor oil in an abandoned water tower; and Vance Hansen, the meek, easily-bulldozed lawyer who does Klute Sorenson’s bidding – just to name a few.

The calf gets loose and is spotted by Dixie, the mail deliverer. She promptly calls the Reverend Gary and posts a picture of the “Jesus Cow” on Facebook where it goes viral.

Chaos ensues. Carloads of the curious and the devout invade Harley’s property, wanting to see the calf, to pray near it, to touch the image of Jesus and be healed. The local constable can’t keep order.

Enter very slick Sloan Knight of International Talent Management in Los Angeles, who has a zillion ideas of how to monetize the miracle. Sloan sits on a manure spreader in Harley’s barn. When Harley points that out to him, Sloan responds, “I’m an agent. I don’t mind a little shit on my boots.”

Harley resists Sloan’s pitch but finally is persuaded to go all in. Sloan takes over and the money rolls in.

All of this is great fun but then the author turns to philosophizing about the power of faith, community, the nature of goodness, greed and love. At the end, he ties up the loose ends by having folks pair up, marry or run off to Panama without having had any relationships during the course of the novel.

Michael Perry is a funny man and, as demonstrated by his nonfiction and by the sections of The Jesus Cow that really work, he is a very funny writer. However, his considerable talent may be better suited to shorter formats than to the novel. I was disappointed in The Jesus Cow but not so disappointed that I won’t look forward to reading his next book.

Michael Perry is the author of Population 485, Truck, A Love Story, Coop, and Visiting Tom, as well as the YA book, The Scavengers. On his website,, he says he was trained as a nurse, worked on a ranch in Wyoming, and now lives in rural Wisconsin where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an intermittent pig farmer. He hosts “Tent Show Radio,” which is nationally-syndicated, performs as a humorist, and tours with his band, “The Long Beds.”


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  2. I love the premise of the book. I have been thinking about Jesus' proclivity for playing peek-a-boo on random items. Fried chicken. Grease spots. The occasional rash or bleach stain. I had not heard of Michael Perry's work before, but now I will look for it.