Early in Clyde Edgerton's The Bible Salesman, Henry Dampier, the 20-year-old peddler in question, volunteers to bury the freshly dead cat of a potential customer. He reaches under the house and pulls out the poor pussycat, then recoils when he discovers a dead snake hanging from the cat's mouth. Apparently, they have bitten each other to death. He removes the snake from the cat's head, which is grotesquely enlarged from the venom, and buries the cat near an apple tree in the backyard.
Yes, that may be literature's clumsiest biblical symbolism—and you're given a dead cat to swing and hit it with—and you laugh because you can nearly see Clyde Edgerton winking at you from behind the apple tree. Indeed, the presence of a sly, agile and ultimately charming storyteller lurks in almost every scene of The Bible Salesman. Like Henry, his protagonist, Edgerton wants to sell you a story, and if you give him a few pages' worth of your time, you have little chance of resisting him.
That you're going to wind up buying Edgerton's tale—and The Bible Salesman belongs squarely in the realm of tales—speaks to the skill of the man telling it, because the narrative itself trades on several tried-and-trues: not only Adam and Eve and the Serpent, but also the Traveling Salesman, Boy Gets/ Loses/ Gets Girl, the Family Trip to the Beach, the Heist and others. The story and its characters are simple and clearly drawn; the language is well crafted but straightforward; and the main theme and its exploration aren't life changing or subversive. This is a modest comedy, quickly read, and its modesty is precisely what helps sell it.
But that is not to say that The Bible Salesman lacks conflict. Indeed Henry, a devout North Carolina Christian, suffers from religious doubt. He keeps fretting over contradictions and vagueness in the King James Bible:
[... it] said that Adam would return to dust. Why wouldn't he go to heaven or hell? That's where everybody went, wasn't it? Nobody just returned to dust, did they? Was there not a heaven when Adam was alive? Wait, in Genesis 1:1 God created heaven and earth; so there was a heaven when he told Adam he was going back to dust, but God hadn't created hell. Did he create hell? It didn't say so. Did he just think about it down the line? That didn't sound like somebody "all-knowing."
But Henry's heart is a believer's, and his gullibility gets him tangled up with outlaws. Hitchhiking with his valise of Bibles, he gets picked up and hired by a fellow named Preston Clearwater who tells Henry they'll be working with the Feds, stealing back hot cars from a ring of auto thieves. Henry believes him, as he believes everyone, and his passage through the book disillusions him with gentle ironies. Somehow, Edgerton manages to take away Henry's innocence but restore his faith. It's 1950, after all.
Everywhere Henry goes he encounters deceivers and salesmen. Even when Henry thinks back on a funeral he went to as a child, he recalls that the preacher exploited the burial opportunity to mention that "it was never too late for anybody in the congregation to surrender to Jesus." The only honest soul seems to be Marleen Green, the girl who captures Henry's heart. (Not only is her last name associated with flora, she runs a fruit stand.)
It wouldn't be a Clyde Edgerton novel without a big helping of the South, and you can get hungry reading of plates loaded down with turnip greens and cornbread and pork chops, of sausage biscuits and squirrel stew and the smell of "freshly cut cucumber." People say "won't" for "wasn't" and use other regionalisms for which Edgerton readies us with an author's note about "usage irregularities" that is so earnest it seems like a put-on. He delights in place-names as Henry travels thieving through the South (Panakala, Okaloga, Drain, New Bilbow). And not only is there cast net fishing and frog gigging, Edgerton makes sure to stage that most Southern and male of scenes: a couple of guys standing around an old truck full of tools, scratching their heads trying to figure out how to get that-there thang down and loaded into the truck. OK, it's a rich man's safe, and they're stealing it, but you really start rooting for them.
And you root for Henry, too, to see through the deceptions of others, to get the girl, to succeed in life. That he earns our allegiance is remarkable, and funny, because Henry is a con artist too. Those Bibles he sells? We learn on page five that they're complimentary editions Henry gets shipped to him—each time from a different supplier, so no one begins to suspect a scam—and razors out the Compliments page and makes sheer profit off the merchandise. That deception, like all of The Bible Salesman, is a reminder that inside all of us, even in the hearts of the innocent, dwells a swindler; and that if you're going to buy the story of Adam and Eve, you're buying not just the snake but the snake oil in it. Perhaps, like the book in its title, Edgerton's is more subversive than it lets on.
Clyde Edgerton makes two area appearances this Saturday, Aug. 16: McIntyre's Fine Books at 11 a.m. and the Regulator Bookshop at 2 p.m.