Selling souls

In his latest novel, "The Bible Salesman," Clyde Edgerton does not waste time in identifying his two main characters; on the very first page, he states that Preston Clearwater is a man who, "belonged to a crime outfit," and was "hungry for wealth and the tense excitement he found nowhere outside of crime." Henry Dampier, on the other hand, is a boy and a Bible salesman, "whose aunt raised him to be a Christian gentleman. He was hungry for adventure and good food." And so the novel begins in North Carolina, in 1950, as the thief picks up the young hitchhiking Bible salesman and recruits him into helping him steal cars throughout the South. The novel follows the pair as they move from one job to the next. Clearwater steals a car and meets Henry at a remote location where they switch license plates and equipment; then Henry drives off in the stolen vehicle.

Henry agrees to help because he thinks that Clearwater is an undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated the car-theft ring. Henry feels he is doing the Lord's work by helping out the FBI and figures that if he does a good job, he may be recruited as a "G-man" someday.

While it is clear that Preston Clearwater and Henry Dampier have different paths in life, Edgerton does to cast them into typical good versus evil roles. Henry, for one, has his flaws -- starting with the Bibles he sells, which he obtained for free under false pretense from Church societies trying to reform sinners. And he resorts to mild deception and questionable sales tactics. Henry is Every Christian Man, complete with imperfections and sins, and as the novel progresses we see that, for good or bad, he is trying to follow the word of God as best as he can. Henry's problem -- and a source of amusement for the reader -- is that as he seeks Truth from the Good Book, he becomes more confused about the contradictions found in different versions of the Bible. Throughout the novel, Henry ponders at great length such issues as man's superiority over animals, premarital sex, ownership and possession, and sinning. It is great fun to hear Henry's inner debate with himself about the book that he practically memorized as a child without truly understanding it.

Interspersed between the chapters outlining the duo's crime spree are extensive sections that flash back to Henry's life growing up in rural North Carolina. From the time Henry was a baby, he was raised by his Aunt Dorie and Uncle Jack after his father is killed in a freak accident and his mother abandoned him and his sister. Henry learns to love his aunt and uncle as if they were his real parents. Edgerton is a master of not only describing small-town life, but also making the reader long for it as well. The rich, vivid descriptions of the small-town landscape, the homes within it, and the images of biscuits baking and sausage gravy cooking over a stovetop are what make Edgerton's writing so special.

Edgerton has great affection for his characters, and while he makes us laugh at their eccentricities, he also provides his readers with enough substance and vulnerability to fall in love with them. The most colorful character is Mrs. Albright, a neighbor from Henry's childhood. She owns several cats, gives each of them biblical names and even makes them talk by throwing her voice. But Edgerton paints a more complicated picture on his canvas; Mrs. Albright's son, Yancy, suffers from a life-threatening goiter, and the pain of possibly losing her only child comes through with precision.

The characters that eventually became Preston Clearwater and Henry Dampier were originally created by Edgerton as a tribute to Flannery O'Connor in his short story, "The Great Speckled Bird," which appeared in Southern Review in January 2007 (this short story is also featured in "New Stories From the South" reviewed on page XX). Edgerton modeled the car thief after The Misfit in O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and Henry was created after the Bible salesman in "Good Country People." After finishing his short story, Edgerton felt that there was a bigger story to tell, which led to the writing of this novel.

Throughout "The Bible Salesman," it is hard to keep from wondering if and when the faithful yet naive Henry Dampier will get a clue as to what kind of trouble he has gotten himself into in his association with Preston Clearwater. And if he does eventually figure it out, will the wealth that he has been enjoying as a perk of the car-theft business seduce him into a true life of crime? Whatever the outcome, Edgerton guarantees one great joy ride.