For evidence that "abstinence only" education rarely results in actual abstinence, the Republican party need look no further than Clyde Edgerton's hilarious coming-of-age novel, The Bible Salesman.
Edgerton's protagonist, 20-year-old Henry Dampier, is barely away from home before he begins to read—for the first time unfiltered by the Baptist Church—the actual Bible he's hit the road to sell. Right away, he discovers shocking evidence that Abraham, on the urging of his barren wife to "go in unto" a servant woman, has spectacularly failed to follow the sexual mores urged on Henry himself, and that God is apparently undismayed by this behavior: "Henry saw that 'go in unto' meant to go to bed with her and have a sex relation. It was as plain as day. He kept reading. Abraham did it. God wrote it and didn't worry a whiff about it, not a whiff."
For young man fresh from his rural home in 1950, this is splendid news: "He wouldn't have to wait till he got married. Why shouldn't he do what they were doing in the very Bible—the good guys, with no consequences?" It's good news in one way only, however. For what Henry encounters in the Bible is not merely evidence that his Sunday School teachers have been holding back on him. He also discovers the inherent contradictions in the Bible itself—which "it almost hurt him to think about"—and struggles to understand how it will ever be possible to live in a world whose rule book no longer makes sense to him.
Both Henry's existential confusion and the coming-of-age trajectory of The Bible Salesman are sped along by Preston Clearwater, an amoral World War II veteran who's working his way up in a ring of car thieves. Clearwater, recognizing that Henry is both gullible and eager for adventure, presents himself as an undercover FBI agent and enlists Henry as his assistant. Clearwater steals the cars and Henry drives them to the barns where they're repainted and retagged. Undercover FBI work appeals to Henry: "It sounded like a comic book adventure, or something from the movies. He'd be serving God in a different way. Good against evil."
Clearwater, who has discerned from his war experiences that "the world is no more than a place for things to happen," isn't evil by any conventional definition, but he does become increasingly violent as the story unfolds: "He didn't like to shoot people, but sometimes it just happened because it was the only way to get through some problem to a place where he had to be." And Henry's efforts to understand the inconsistencies of the Bible are nothing to what happens when he must confront his own participation in the dark consequences of Clearwater's "undercover" sting.
Ultimately, this isn't a dark book, though it does make a good case for Clyde Edgerton's bid to be the 21st century Flannery O'Connor. The grotesque Southern set pieces are here in plenty: the snake-bitten cat with the "swolled up" head, the elderly sisters who give Henry a ride in exchange for a tank of gas and two new Bibles, the ventriloquist widow with a cat named Judas who says things like, "I'm gonna hang myself by the neck, I messed up so bad." But beyond the violence and beyond the laugh-out-loud humor, this story of a boy who becomes a man is, in Edgerton's hands, a true tale of redemption. It's not a spoiler to say that, by novel's end, Henry is indeed saved, though not by any illusions fed to him in Sunday School. "It feels like we're moving through space with the ground slipped out from under us," he says, amazed. And this recognition of the vast beauty in uncertainty is at least as reassuring to him as the discovery that Father Abraham slept with a woman who wasn't his wife.
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