Friday, July 11, 2008

Review: The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton

Little Brown; August 2008

Clyde Edgerton’s 2003 novel, Lunch at the Picadilly, wasn’t his best book—his 1988 masterpiece, The Floatplane Notebooks, still holds that honor—but in many ways it was the quintessential Clyde Edgerton novel. Not only did it have a high quotient of songs folded into its pages—Edgerton and fellow musician Mike Craver even developed a musical around the book—it also had a near-endless supply of hilarious and pitch-perfect dialogue of old Southern ladies. I’m a fan of all of Edgerton’s books and can attest that there are many things he does well, but channeling Southern women of advanced age and transcribing their conversations is quite simply what he does best, and does better than any other writer I can think of, male or female, Southern or otherwise.

Edgerton comes by his ear for this sort of dialogue naturally. He grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in a tiny North Carolina community called Bethesda near what is now Raleigh-Durham International Airport, surrounded by many aunts and cousins whose language and cadence seem to flow through his pen at will.

Clyde Edgerton’s new novel, The Bible Salesman, is not a typical Edgerton novel in the Lunch At the Picadilly sense, but it’s his most risk-taking work of fiction since his 1995 western, Redeye. Set in rural North Carolina in the 1940s (and several years earlier in flashbacks), The Bible Salesman charts the course of two men—one of them a dashing and accomplished thief, the other an enthusiastic, but unwitting accomplice—on a grand-theft-auto crime spree. The titular Bible salesman is a credulous young man named Henry Dampier who gets talked into joining a car theft ring by Preston Clearwater, a career criminal who convinces Dampier that he’s an FBI agent who’s infiltrated the ring to bust the perpetrators. By assisting in the car-transfers, he tells Dampier, he’ll be working for the FBI on a critical, top-secret mission.

The book deals in violence and seediness like no Edgerton novel since Redeye, and culminates in the most suspenseful scene Edgerton has ever written, in which Dampier and Clearwater attempt to rob a small-town doctor (a scene introduced in a killer short story, “The Great Speckled Bird,” published in The Southern Review last year). But aside from the showdown with the doctor, the most memorable scenes in the book concern Dampier’s courtship of a girl named Marleen Green whom he meets in his travels selling Bibles.

What’s remarkable about the scenes of Henry and Marleen is, of course, the dialogue. While their conversation mostly serves as a prelude to a physical relationship, it’s also the tentatively philosophical banter of two people whose ability to think abstractly and articulate those thoughts are largely undeveloped. In a movie, we’d most likely gloss over this sort of awkwardness with a music montage that would reduce the development of their relationship to looks and gestures, but Edgerton plays it all out as only he can, creating perfectly realized verbal exchanges between essentially non-verbal people. This strikes me as a very difficult thing to do, especially without even a hint of condescension on the writer's part.

Reading these scenes, you ache at the awkwardness of Henry and Marleen and laugh at their clumsy attempts to impress each other (and Henry's transparent scheming to shed his virginity), but Edgerton never makes his characters look stupid or casts them as objects of ridicule. For example, after a brief debate on whether aspirin actually stops pain or simply covers it up, Henry waxes philosophical to Marleen about “how you couldn’t for sure talk about some object in some ways unless you knew which particular one it was so you could say that one.” Marleen counters by pointing out that “you couldn’t make any real sense about certain kinds of tree things if you talked about trees in general.” She concludes, leading Henry and Marleen to their tentative first kiss: “Sometimes generalizing doesn’t work.”

This is classic Edgerton, as are the too-few and too-far-between moments shared by Henry and his two elderly Bible customers, Miss Sarah and Mrs. Finley, which let us spend at least a few pages in Lunch at the Picadilly country. The scenes of Dampier’s childhood, and his efforts to make sense of the rigid religion he was raised on, echo earlier books like Where Trouble Sleeps and Raney as well. Some of The Bible Salesman's finest and funniest moments happen when Dampier, reading and thinking independently on the Bible for the first time as an adult and thrashing out its apparent contradictions in his head, tries to engage Clearwater on biblical topics, and of course the hardened car thief wants no part of it. What pushes the book into Redeye territory (and beyond, since we care about Henry and Marleen, as well as Henry's sister, more than I recall caring about the characters in Redeye) is the violence at the core of Preston Clearwater, which engenders a sense of dread in the reader that pervades the entire experience of reading the book.

One peculiar aspect of The Bible Salesman is an Author’s Note that appears at the start of the book. In it Edgerton defends the “[a]pparent usage irregularities of some characters’ speech… Since langage is not spoken in a vacuum, but rather in situations among people,” Edgerton writes, “it is clear and reasonable that the use of language be judged by custom and appropriateness rather than by the principles of correctness drawn from mathlike assumptions.”

I have no doubt Edgerton believes this—I couldn’t agree with it more myself—but I just wonder under what sort of duress he felt compelled to write it, and to include it as the preface to this novel, which by my count is his ninth. Edgerton’s characters have been speaking their own language and earning their author comparisons to Mark Twain for his ability to capture dialect since his first book, Raney, appeared in 1983. Why he’d feel the need to defend the authenticity of his characters' speech, and their right to speak in the authentic dialect of their region at this stage of the game is a mystery to me; maybe it has something to do with the fact that Edgerton has a new publisher, the Boston-based Little Brown, after 25 years with the Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books. But you’d think Little Brown would understand this without the explanation, and trust their readers to get it too.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about Edgerton’s characters and his portrayal of rural North Carolinians in particular is that they talk how they talk and they are who they are, and there’s no tortured, divided-soul personal agenda behind the way he writes them. He’s not Eugene O’Neill protesting that “stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people,” nor is he James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus vowing to “forge the unconstructed conscience of my race in the smithy of my soul.” Edgerton is a storyteller, not given to such self-dramatizing proclamations, and the truths his stories reveal flow quite naturally—and usually quite quietly—from the stories themselves and the characters and situations within them, rather than from the author’s wrestling with some troubled relationship to them.

When Edgerton strikes the first note of racial prejudice in Raney, it’s not presented as a sweeping indictment of the character who speaks it; it simply emerges as another facet of the cultural chasm separating Old South Raney and her New South husband, Charles, and what they both need to learn if they hope to understand each other. In a later book, In Memory of Junior, there’s much casual discussion among veterans of their experiences in Vietnam. Most of these take place on gravedigging jobs, but the exchange that’s stuck in my mind for years involves Jimmy and Faison on a fishing trip, when Jimmy says of the war, "It alters a man’s life. At’s a fact… I saw stuff over there I’ll never see again... While we was over there we was different, and I sure as hell don’t think anybody ought to get the blame... You get sent somewhere to do a job, you do the job. I’ll tell you one thing. I by and large loved it. Most of it."

In another writer’s hands, this would be a soapbox moment, the character serving as a mouthpiece for the writer and articulating his deepest convictions (or exposing their antithesis) on the most controversial national episode of the author’s lifetime. But in Edgerton’s hands it's something different. It's reasonable to assume this is part of what Edgerton believes about Vietnam, and a partial reflection of his experience as an Air Force pilot in Southeast Asia during the war. But Edgerton isn't talking here—Jimmy is. And that’s what allows the character to speak, quite credibly, a truth that doesn’t happen to be the whole story, but is true nonetheless, I suspect, for many small-town Southern boys for whom Vietnam meant a chance to see other parts of the world, possibly fly planes, and certainly experience things that they never would have if they hadn’t left home to serve: “I by and large loved it.”

Edgerton expands on this experience quite powerfully in his memoir Solo—his most recent book before The Bible Salesman—and reveals a response to the war experience that’s more complex than Jimmy's, and much more regretful. But Jimmy's take is in there: "They say war is hell," Edgerton writes in Solo, "but it wasn't hell for me." I’ll confess to having learned as much about what Vietnam meant to some of the young men who fought the war from those six words of Jimmy’s as I learned from Solo. As strong a memoir as Solo is, Edgerton is at his best as a novelist. With the arrival of The Bible Salesman—a book that’s as funny and true as his earlier novels and also the scariest thing he’s written yet—it’s good to have Edgerton the novelist back, and with a hell of a tale to tell.

Click here to pre-order The Bible Salesman from Powell's Books.

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