Book review | Delightful ‘Jesus Cow’ reveals greed, faith, small-town life

“The Jesus Cow: A Novel,” by Michael Perry.
“The Jesus Cow: A Novel,” by Michael Perry. Courtesy image

The town you grew up near hasn’t changed in umpteen years.

Oh, sure, there are new roads, and new houses dot the outskirts. The grocery store your Mom preferred is now owned by someone else. But there’s still a church on Main, still an everybody-knows-who-you-are watering hole, and kids still do things on Saturday nights that you once did. But in the new novel “The Jesus Cow” by Michael Perry, there’s change coming to Swivel, Wis., and it’s not necessarily good.

When Harley Jackson stepped into the barn that Christmas Eve and saw that his Holstein, Tina Turner, had given birth, he knew right off that the calf was trouble.

It was a bull calf with an outline of Jesus, plain as day, right on its side, and Billy Tripp, Harley’s best friend, said that it could make Harley rich. But no, Harley really just wanted to live his life with “low overhead.” He decided to hide the calf until he could figure out what to do.

Carolyn Sawchuck saw the light in Harley’s barn, and she hoped he wouldn’t spot her sitting where she was. For the past five Christmas Eves, she’d climbed 40 feet to the top of Swivel’s historic water tower to check on a little project she’d been creating. If Harley and Billy couldn’t see her, then nobody could, and her secret was safe.

By 3 a.m. Christmas Day, Klute Sorensen was awake and fuming about the idiots in Swivel, especially Harley Jackson. Because Harley was holding on to the last pathetic 15 acres of what was once his family’s farm, Klute’s planned subdivision was a failure. Frustrated that he couldn’t manipulate Harley like he could many of Swivel’s other residents, Klute vowed to get that land any way he could.

As the old year gave way to the new, Harley still couldn’t decide what to do with that calf. He couldn’t even bring himself to tell his new girlfriend about the Savior on the calf’s hide — until the calf escaped, and Dixie the mail carrier spotted it. Almost within minutes, County Road M was filled with believers and cars.

And Harley knew trouble had only just begun …

When I first received “The Jesus Cow,” the title gave me pause: It seemed quite profane, maybe flippantly so, but I dove in anyhow. Ultimately, I needn’t have worried: Author Michael Perry’s got this one.

As it turns out, the “cow” in the title really isn’t around much in this delightful book filled with (mostly) goodhearted characters, but he does serve as a nice catalyst for what happens. Indeed, though he’s really barely mentioned directly (and certainly not irreverently), the cow runs this gently humorous, sweetly folksy — but sharply allegoric — story of greed, faith, friendship and small-town life. I loved it.

Readers of Perry’s nonfiction books will want to know that this is perfect Perry-as-usual, only in novel form. If you’re a fan, in fact, you’ll eat this up. If you’re not a fan yet, well, “The Jesus Cow” will change that.

At a glance

Title | “The Jesus Cow: A Novel”

Author | Michael Perry

Publisher | Harper

Length | 287 pages

Cost | $25.99