‘The Jesus Cow’

In his new novel The Jesus Cow, Wisconsin author Michael Perry does what he does best, recreating for his readers the small town-rural life that seems unique to our state, presenting grassroots characters that can be heartwarming in a salt-of-the-earth way, but at the same time amusing because of their idiosyncratic nature.

Harley Jackson is a good man, raised right by his religious parents, and he enjoys a simple life raising beef animals on the land that remains from his family farm on the edge of the small Wisconsin town, Swivel. He has a comfortable and predictable lifestyle, status in the community, the companionship of a best friend Billy, but he finds love to be elusive.

A number of colorful people populate Swivel, beginning with Billy Tripp, a big guy bachelor with a trailer full of cats; Carolyn Sawchuck, a deposed academic who keeps a secret in her water tower home; Meg Jankowski, who runs her father’s scrap and towing business; Klute Sorensen, a real estate developer with big dreams and even bigger failures; and Mindy Johnson, a self-reliant woman who is a candidate for becoming the love of Harley’s life.

The Kwik Pump gas station-convenience store serves as the hub of Swivel, a meeting place as characters stop for gas, coffee and snacks, or other necessities. It has replaced the town’s mom and pop gas stations, a harbinger of progress.

While the novel relates the story of Harley’s search for love and reaffirmation of meaning in life, it is also a satiric take on the cultural phenomenon of Jesus appearing to his faithful in a mystical vision or a likeness on a piece of French toast, in this instance, a calf born on Christmas Eve to Harley’s dairy cow Tina Turner. When he “stepped into his barn and beheld there illuminated in the straw a smallish newborn bull calf upon whose flank was borne the very image of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” he said to himself, “Well, that’s trouble.”

And it was.

His farm becomes a rural Wisconsin version of Lourdes, with all the darkly comedic elements of a rustic theme park spiraling out of control. But at the same time, genuine human kindness prevails in a local food pantry and sincere faith in a small Catholic church.

The novel culminates in a fireworks display that provides unintended pyrotechnics (giving the volunteer fire department a chance to do their thing) and the plot resolves with characters finding love in unexpected quarters, presumably living happily ever after as Swivel swivels back to its pre-miracle existence.

Fans of Michael Perry’s brand of humor will not be disappointed in this fast read, and first-timers may well want to read his iconic nonfiction Population 485 along with his other earlier books.

The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry, 283 pages, Harper Collins, 2015.