The Jesus Cow: A Novel
By Mike Perry
283 pages, $25.99
By Neil Schmitz
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Somewhere between Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, a tiny red dot on your northwestern Wisconsin map is New Auburn, Population: 485, Mike Perry’s closely scrutinized, delicately realized, field of play, “Nobbern.”
Of course, this part of Wisconsin lies within the sphere of imperial Minneapolis-St. Paul, so the denizens of New Auburn speak with that flat Scandinavian drawl Frances McDormand nailed in the movie, “Fargo.” She is everywhere speaking in Perry’s “The Jesus Cow”; she could play any one of the major women in a film of the novel.
The hero, Harley Jackson, a bashful geezer, says “Yah” a lot. You have to move a far piece east from New Auburn to be in natural Wisconsin.
Roman Catholic supernatural activity is always intense in Wisconsin; there are three Marian shrines, two blessed, one unblessed. The unblessed Queen of the Holy Rosary Mediatrix Between God and Man Shrine is in Necedah, Wis., where Mary Ann Van Hoof, a stout muscular farm wife with eight children, saw, in 1949, the Mother of God. Our Lady had a new title, and this was it, Queen of the Holy Rosary. She wanted more rosaries said.
What thoughtful Badger is not still fascinated by those visitations in Necedah? You can now see one on YouTube, but at a distance, the camera in the crowd. This event, and subsequent public sensation, is the given in Perry’s novel. That and surely the 1994 birth of Miracle, the female sacred white buffalo calf, in Janesville, Wis., which fulfilled certain Lakota prophecies and was certified by shamans.
Christmas Eve, in Harley Jackson’s barn, Tina Turner, the cow, gives birth to a little bull calf on whose flank is outlined a perfect representation of the face of Jesus Christ. Perry’s novel begins with a conflation of the two weird Wisconsin events, with their equivalence – Marian visitation and the Jesus calf.
It’s intellectually dead on delivery, I’d say. He attacks religious credulity, the thousands who flocked to Necedah, the thousands who flock to Swivel, the hamlet in “The Jesus Cow.” The first paragraph locks him into place.
There is a set of intersecting August/September romances and a bushel of happy endings. Characters depart the novel arm in arm as did characters from the Pacific Princess on “Love Boat.” The novel’s end is a dive for the exit.
I am sorry to say I foundered early in “The Jesus Cow.” I think it was this scene: Cynic Harley is seriously eyeballing the calf’s Jesus face, working up a religious emotion, when the calf lifts its tail and produces fecal matter.
But amid the plot contrivance and character exposition, there are still populist prose jewels: a Kwik gas station and grocery exactly rendered, the sad single street with its empty storefronts, a cattle auction, the sale barn, where you watch the bidding and Harley explaining the signing.
You see Depression misery as in Walker Evans’ photography. Perry can walk you around farm machinery, the baler, the spreader, and your feet get muddy and wet.
Think of “The Jesus Cow” as a divertissement. Perry’s métier is the personal narrative.
He is truly our homegrown Ove Knausgaard, Perry’s struggle told in those three muscular meaty volumes: “Population: 482” (2002), “Truck (2006) and “Coop” (2009), which is excellent reading, especially for manly men. In “Truck,” you get into the cab of an International Harvester L-120, and Perry instructs you in its operation, letting you in on the beauty of truck engineering. You might be looking at an Elgin Marble.
Of course Perry votes for the wrong people in Wisconsin. He’s a gun guy. His politics are cranky deep forest politics. Also, as we’ve seen, he lives on the wrong side of Wisconsin.
I don’t care. I deeply enjoyed those three personal Wisconsin narratives. There are good things in “The Jesus Cow.” The exchanges between Harley and his codger pal, Billy, are almost the best thing in the novel. They’re classic, like Huck explaining the king to Jim or Lum explaining anything to Abner on that long ago radio show. Perry explains to us what lets you see the Jesus face on the calf’s flank. Belief.
Perry is New Auburn’s poet-in-residence. He is also its village atheist.
Neil Schmitz is a professor emeritus of English at the University at Buffalo.