"The Bible Salesman"
(Reviewed by Mike Frechette JAN 25, 2009)
A young, naïve Bible salesman and a hardened car thief seem unlikely bedfellows, but for Clyde Edgerton, these very characters form the basis of a tale at once hysterical and thoughtful. In Edgerton’s most recent novel The Bible Salesman, twenty-year-old Henry Dampier sells Bibles door-to-door, employment pleasing to his Aunt Dorie who raised him “to be a Christian gentleman.” Such an upbringing makes him an easy target, though, for someone like Preston Clearwater who offers Henry a lift at the novel’s opening. A car thief, Clearwater is searching for someone innocent like Henry to help him transport the stolen vehicles. With little effort, Clearwater convinces Henry that he will be working for the FBI, and Henry, youthful and eager, jumps at the opportunity.
Though gullible, Henry’s upbringing is already coming undone when the reader meets him in the book’s first few pages. While tempted by vice, Henry’s faith suffers more from the contradictions and ambiguities he discovers while “reading the Bible on his own rather than as directed by his aunt and church elders.” Edgerton delights his readers with humor as Henry’s preconceived notions about rightful living are undermined by the very book supposedly responsible for these notions. For instance, in reading Genesis, Henry decides that he too might “have a sex relation or two before he was married…like Abraham.” When his cousin Carson asks Henry what happened to make him change his mind about premarital sex, Henry responds, “I started reading the Bible.” Clearly, Edgerton relies heavily on irony to create humor and drive home his simple yet provocative theme. Through a young, naïve, and undereducated protagonist, Edgerton reveals the more nebulous aspects of Christian belief. His novel by no means mocks Christianity as a whole, but it does poke a little fun at a peculiarly American brand and its insistence that every word in the Bible must be taken literally. Many readers will identify with Henry, who confronts contradictions that drive him to look deeper for the truth in his religion. Straying from home for the first time, he loses his innocence as he encounters people filled with malice and deceit. His adventure with Clearwater eventually takes a terrifying turn, giving him a glimpse into the duplicitous quality of human nature that he is still uncomfortable discussing at the novel’s end.
Structurally, the chapters, or parts, alternate between the present – North Carolina in 1950 – and the past – Henry’s Southern upbringing by his Aunt Dorie and Uncle Jack. Most parts are aptly named Exodus and Genesis, with the Genesis parts providing glimpses into Henry’s childhood. This structure works well for Edgerton, but at times it does interfere with the novel’s cohesiveness and hamper the story’s momentum. Although Clearwater begins to hint at a big job which will become the suspenseful subject matter of the final part, the suspense does not build like it could over the course of the novel. In fact, the relevance of the flashbacks to Henry’s past is not always apparent (at least on a first read), causing the plot’s trajectory to get muddled. Nevertheless, these scenes are always touching or laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes showing a Henry already pushing against the moral restrictions of his Christian upbringing. In one instance, Henry and his cousin Carlson are discussing how to undo a girl’s bra. When they start practicing on each other, Henry’s Aunt Dorie opens the door and catches them in the act, which is where the chapter ends.
The Exodus parts are also somewhat episodic, with Henry meeting an entertaining yet random assortment of people as he continues to sell Bibles during his down time from assisting Clearwater. Edgerton’s supporting cast comprises a dizzying array, from a pair of quirky old ladies to a housewife who needs help burying her dead cat to an eccentric ventriloquist and old family friend whose biblically named felines talk to one another. Not all of Henry’s encounters is fleeting or laughable, however; he does find lasting love on the road in a kindred spirit and vegetable saleswoman named Marlene Green. Into this slim volume, Edgerton manages to pack murder, romance, suspense, and humor, a feat that demonstrates his talent as a writer and establishes broad audience appeal. Whatever one’s literary taste, this novel is bound to spark thoughtful discussion and plenty of laughter.
- Amazon.com reader rating:from 30 reviews
(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 19, 1998)
I was looking for Edgerton's book Walking Across Egypt when I came across Raney and decided to give it a try. I read it one Sunday afternoon, and chuckled over it all the next day. I think I quoted half the book to my sister Lori. (And then she read it and quoted it back to me!)
It's the story of a "modern" Southern woman who is a member of the Free Will Baptist church and her marriage to a liberal well-educated, Episcopalian man named Charles. After their marriage they reside in Listre, North Carolina not too far from her parents. (Many of Edgerton's books take place in Listre.) Between the comic scenes, Edgerton makes the point that marriages are marriages of two families and not just two people and he succeeds marvelously in showing the compromises. I have a really hard time believing that this book was written by a man, Raney's voice just seems too true.
- Amazon.com reader rating:from 38 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Raney (1985)
- Walking Across Egypt (1987)
- Killer Diller (1991)
- In Memory of Junior (1992)
- The Floatplane Notebooks (1993)
- Redeye- A Western (1995)
- Where Trouble Sleeps (1997)
- Lunch at the Piccadilly (September 2003)
- The Bible Salesman (August 2008)
- The Night Train (July 2011)
- Solo: My Adventures in the Air (September 2005)
Movies from Books:
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- Wikipedia page on Clyde Edgerton
- MostlyFiction.com review of Redeye
- Readers Guide for Lunch at the Piccadilly
- The New York Times review of The Bible Salesman
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About the Author:
Clyde Edgerton was born in 1944 and grew up in Bethesda, North Carolina, a small community in east Durham County. He was the only child of Truma and Ernest Edgerton, who came from families of cotton and tobacco farmers, respectively.
In 1962 Edgerton enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, eventually majoring in English. During this time he was a student in the Air Force ROTC program where he learned to fly a small plane. After graduating in 1966, he entered the Air Force and served five years as a fighter pilot in the United States, Korea, Japan and Thailand.
After his time in service, Edgerton got his Master's degree in English and began a job as an English teacher at his old high school. Soon after, he also earned a doctorate.
He decided to become a writer in 1978 after watching Eudora Welty read a short story on public television.
Publication of Edgerton's first novel, Raney, the plot of which revolves around the marriage of a Free Will Baptist and an Episcopalian, ultimately led to Edgerton's leaving the teaching staff at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina (a Baptist institution). His later work, Killer Diller, is a thinly-veiled satire of that university and its administration, with whom Edgerton clashed over Raney.
Also a musician, Edgerton, with
his wife Susan Ketchin, were founding members of the The Tarwater
Band. He now plays with the Ranks Strangers Band.
Currently he is a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.