THE BIBLE SALESMAN by Clyde Edgerton (Little, Brown), 238 pages, $26.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Clyde Edgerton's gently comic tale set in North Carolina in the years just after the Second World War is a rollicking read.
Henry Dampier, a devout young Baptist from a hardscrabble family, tries to make a living selling the Bibles he has promised to distribute free of charge for an evangelical ministry.
While in North Carolina on this slightly errant mission, he meets Preston Clearwater, a dapper veteran who's recently divested the U.S. Army of 1,600 pairs of aviator sunglasses and is now climbing the ranks of a Southern car theft ring.
Clearwater convinces Dampier that he's a deep-undercover operative for the FBI and requires his assistance to break the ring. Enticed by the possibility of undercover Fed work, Dampier dutifully drives stolen cars to predestined pickup points, never guessing that he's becoming increasingly ensnared in a criminal organization.
Clearwater's world-weary nihilism makes him an intriguing foil for the earnest Dampier, who struggles with the contradictions he runs into in his nightly Bible readings.
He also faces challenges to his chastity in the person of Marlene, a blond temptress he meets at a small-town fruit stand, who gradually becomes involved in his attempt to rise in Clearwater's esteem.
The trifecta of theological discovery, young love and crime propels the three characters to an appropriately Biblical climax.
Edgerton's characters are bold yet believable; Dampier is the closest thing in recent fiction to a Preston Sturges figure. And the book is a goldmine of shaggy dog elements, including a whisky-sipping aunt who lives alone in a house with her 30 talking cats.
Borrowing Scriptural tropes and themes from Southern literature and folklore, Edgerton weaves a wryly amusing Southern gothic tale about faith, the perils of gullibility and optimism and the ever-present temptation of evil.