The Jesus Cow
by Michael Perry
Slip on your barn boots and get ready for a farmland tale that poses heartfelt questions about faith, love, and filial duty. The Jesus Cow (2015) published by HarperCollins, is a comical mash-up of life styles, pitting the laid back pace of by-gone agricultural days against the break-neck social media whirlwind of today. The hero of The Jesus Cow is Harley Jackson, a Swivel, Wisconsin beef farmer whose old cattle barn is the location of a Christmas Eve miracle — of sorts. Thanks to the no-brakes, no-boundaries nature of the internet, news of the miracle instantly flies to all corners of the earth, and life on Harley’s quiet farm is altered forever.
Michael Perry, the Wisconsin native who penned The Jesus Cow, is a bestselling author and in the pattern of Garrison Keillor, also hosts a nationally syndicated musical radio show called Tent Show Radio. Perry has written several non-fiction books and has a website called www.sneezingcow.com.
Here is the one paragraph prologue to The Jesus Cow:
“On Christmas Eve itself, the bachelor Harley Jackson 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.
“‘Well,’ said Harley, ‘that’s trouble.’ “
Initially, Harley tries to ignore, deny and then cover up the image of the “hairy Rorschach open to only one interpretation: Jesus Christ.” As he considers his situation, Harley turns critical and addresses himself, “But Harley Jackson?” thought Harley. Harley Jackson does what he does best: dither. Dither in love, dither in faith, dither in life itself…dither over the Jesus calf. You can’t keep covering everything over with Kiwi [shoe polish] black…”
Harley is forced out of his dithering ways when the first picture of the miracle calf is posted on the Internet. Soon, numerous townspeople are roped into helping Harley as he tries to control the frenzy of curious and faith-filled folks who stream out to his farm to see the miracle. The situation deteriorates steadily until a professional social media wizard offers to step in:
“Harley’s cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the area code.”
‘Harley Jackson?’ A man’s voice. Businesslike.
‘Who’s this?’ As far as he knew, his phone number wasn’t listed anywhere.
‘Sloan Knight,’ he said. ‘International Talent Management.’
‘This Jesus cow of yours. We want to represent it — and you.’
‘But how did you —-‘
‘Calf’s viral. All over the Internet. We have people monitoring these things. We like to move fast.’
‘You want to represent a calf?…’ “And so begins the media mayhem.
The pandemonium brought on by the Jesus Cow moves the story forward, creating spiritual struggles and cultural conundrums that must be played out; this is big screen, super sized drama. But it’s Perry’s comically philosophical representation of rural, small town life that makes the reader care about Harley and his many relationships, be they friendly, fussy or downright acrimonious. These quirky and mostly kind folks are the heart of the story.
One such character is long time widow Meg (Margaret Magdalene) Jankowski. The Jesus calf had just entered the world in Harley’s barn when, in another part of town…
“Christmas morning broke to the rumble of a junk truck. Margaret Magdalene Jankowski came down shifting off the overpass and past the old water tower she had hoped to scrap, her split-shift Ford straight truck squatting to the overloads beneath the weight of the dismantled combine (Meg was ninja grade with a blowtorch), a rusted harrow, and a flattened Ford Festiva, the snug balance of the load testament to the fact that this was a woman who knew her way around ratchet straps and chain boomers….After paying cash for the gas (she never used a credit card), Meg turned left out of the lot… and parked along the curb in front of Saint Jude’s Catholic Church. Most days, she would disappear into the chapel for ten minutes, where she would light a votive candle, pray a decade of the rosary, then reemerge to return up the road past the water tower, re-cross the overpass, then hang a left down the southbound ramp for Clearwater and the scrap metal processing center….But today was Christmas…and…for Meg, devotion trumped all.”
Perry populates Swivel with some less likable but very funny people also. Klute Sorenson, for instance. Klute is a native son of Swivel who came into a sizable albeit diminishing inheritance, and wants to reestablish his family’s name and wealth through real estate and politics. He believes he can accomplish these goals through conning the town council into supporting his plans for “smart growth” in Swivel and by bullying local landowners out of any property he wants to purchase. To maintain his business acumen Klute continuously listens to audio books on motivational sales, one of which is Stomp Your Way to Success, which touts such sayings as, “You don’t sneak up on success in fluffy slippers.” Harley Jackson’s farmland is coveted by Klute, and Klute makes every effort to wrest the land away from Harley through legal and illegal means. Michael Perry almost succeeds in making Klute totally despicable, but creates a wildly clever way for redemption to be offered even to Klute, a Hummer driving self-absorbed underhanded bully.
In The Jesus Cow, Perry wraps surprise inside understatement, contrasts common sense with nonsense, and situates silly activities of modern life against the gritty backdrop of a farming community. The result is a book that is laugh out loud funny, however the humor is laced with just enough battery acid to make it burn a little bit — a reminder that the foolishness we are laughing at is probably our own.
A friend, Terri Baas, compared Perry’s adult novel The Jesus Cow to E. B. White’s classic children’s story, Charlotte’s Web. In each book a farm animal provides a source of amazement. In The Jesus Cow it’s the image of Jesus on a calf’s flank, and in Charlotte’s Web it is wonderful, encouraging words woven into webs by the barn spider, Charlotte. The effects the “miracles” have on folks in the stories are impressive: they induce awe, attract huge crowds and direct people’s thinking to a power above the human species — and both books are fun to read, too. In the spirit of the incomparable spider, Charlotte, here are my recommendations of Michael Perry’s book, The Jesus Cow: “Terrific,” “Radiant” and “Some Cow!”