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Tom Chaney: Selling Bibles and Stealing Automobiles

B>Of Writers And Their Books: Selling Bibles and Stealing Automobiles. Tom reviews The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton and says "by page twenty... we are conned as bad as the cat owner by the burial tuck." This column first appeared 5 October 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Doc Holliday and the Elephant

By Tom Chaney

Selling Bibles and Stealing Automobiles

When you pick up a book by Clyde Edgerton, you might as well get ready to throw decorum to the winds and to enter an outrageous world peopled by folks you know. I just finished reading The Bible Salesman and I haven't laughed so loud since Grandma got . . . oh well, you know when.

Preston Clearwater is driving through the south in his 1950 Chrysler looking for an associate suitable for his auto theft business when he comes upon just the right mark in the person of Henry Dampier -- nineteen-year-old hitchhiking Bible salesman.

Clearwater began his life of crime in the army during World War II when he stole two chain saws and 1600 pair of aviator glasses. Now he steals cars, driving them away to be repainted and resold. He needs a gullible associate to drive the Chrysler.

After Henry went to Bible selling school he learned to increase his profit margin by ordering free Bibles from a Gideons-like organization. So he orders them by the case, pretending to be a revivalist, and carefully cuts out the page which talks about where they came from.

Clearwater easily cons Henry into believing he is an undercover agent for the F.B.I. breaking up an auto theft ring.

And so we are off on a juggernaut of a Bible stealing, car selling adventure worthy of the southern writer who has given us Redeye; Raney; Walking Across Egypt; and a raft of other side-splitters that tell us more than we want to know about ourselves.

Clyde Edgerton's latest, The Bible Salesman, was just published in August 2008 by Little, Brown. And David Sedaris got it just right when he wrote for the book's cover "How good it feels to throw back one's head and howl with a great comic novel."

But Bible selling is all about getting one's foot in the door -- even the screen door of Mrs. Kelly, a bereft wife whose beloved cat has died. Henry offers to bury the cat. It's out back under the porch, says the farm wife. I know it's dead because its butt is sticking out from under the porch. "I call her, Bunny."

Henry gets the shovel and pulls the cat from under the porch only to discover the cause of death. Protruding from the mouth of the cat is a dead copperhead snake which the cat had tried to eat and which had bitten the cat on the way down.

Undaunted, Henry buries the cat, snake and all, in a cross-shaped grave beneath an apple tree -- using the shovel and clumsy biblical symbolism.

At that moment the bereaved cat owner comes out of the house to see the grave. She asks Henry to unbury the cat and rebury it in a box to keep the elements away. While she fetches a shoe box, Henry, with some deft legerdemain, separates the cat and snake, but is left with a dead cat with a terribly swollen head.

He makes a burial shroud from his handkerchief and quickly sticks the cat in the box.

"Her head looked swolled up to me," Mrs. Kelly said.

"Oh no ma'am, it was the way you tuck a burial shroud that made it look that way. It's a kind of protection. It's called a burial tuck."

And that's only by page twenty. By then, dear reader, we are conned as bad as the cat owner by the burial tuck.

From the grave beneath the apple tree it's a jaunt across the Carolinas and Georgia and much of the rest of the south in stolen DeSotos and Plymouths and Oldsmobiles.

Honesty and innocence are represented only by the nubile Marleen Green who captures Henry's gullible heart. Marleen runs a fruit stand to which Henry returns over and over again. Innocence is elusive and short lived.

Along the way Henry reads his Bible, puzzling over Genesis and its two accounts of creation.

Clearwater murders a truck driver over a bumper jack and a flat tire.

When the air is cleared and Henry realizes just how he has been conned, he tries to confess to the police who don't believe him for one minute.

Henry and Marleen have their honeymoon by the sea, fishing and reading the twenty-third psalm and laying in the sand. "It feels like we're moving through space with the ground slipped out from under us," says Henry.

For shear joy, I commend Henry and Marleen and Preston Clearwater to your attention. One caution, however. You probably shouldn't read The Bible Salesman at a wake.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-10-06 03:45:09
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