To the Garrison Keillor fans, the Jon Hassler faithful, and those who believe in preaching without words: look, Michael Perry has dedicated his large-hearted and funny first novel to you:
In The Jesus Cow (2015) Perry’s fictional town of Swivel, Wisconsin, finds itself trampled by tourists when a bachelor named Harley Jackson is blessed with a miracle. Harley, who scrapes together his living through part-time employment and a small herd of beef cattle, is astonished to see that a calf born on Christmas eve has a unique spot on its side, a “stylized Jesus, rendered in black-and-white blotches […] but immediately recognizable as the standard doe-eyed Lutheran hippie iteration” (16). Determined to maintain a livelihood with “low overhead,” Harley hides the calf as long as possible. When word gets out, a new Christian icon emerges, revolutionizing the lives of everyone in Swivel.
Put another way, the novel will make any stoic Midwesterner shudder:
• Religion has a price tag
• Control of the town is seized by a big-city business
• Unearned wealth comes to just one person
As owner of the “Jesus cow,” Harley accepts the windfall income passively, worrying instead about how to restore the parts of his pre-iconic-calf life that he now finds precious. The mad frenzy of pilgrim-tourists around his barn draw a sharp contrast to the lived faith that characterizes many of his favorite people. He is agnostic to the miracle cow in his barn. And while he also considers himself a non-believer, he honors memories of Sunday worship as a core of his childhood experience. In fact, it is Harley’s concept of faith as a silent but powerful force that nearly dissuades him from commercializing his new calf. “His mother’s creed”—at least as he understood it—“was pretty much: let’s not make a scene” (19). What’s more, he remembers passages of the Bible pointed out by his father with a “work-thickened finger,” feeling all the more uneasy that he might not only make money off of people’s faiths, but do so without having to sweat for it.
Although Harley himself does not practice Christian faith, he knows it as the bedrock of his small-town culture. Something he is loath to lose. Ironically enough, the miraculous appearance of the face of Jesus on his newborn calf does not bring him to his knees in worship. Neither does it seem to inspire new belief for anyone else. Can it heal illness? That’s ambiguous. A parent reports to Harley that their daughter was cured of cancer after touching the calf. But Harley has the last word: maybe it was the doctors, or the medicine (281). Is the Jesus Cow actually a threat to the last remnants of Christian culture in Swivel? Is it a miracle, or a curse?
If there is a hero in Perry’s sleepy small-town cast, it is Meg Magdalene, who serves regularly at the local food pantry and gives a percentage of any income to her Catholic church home. She does not talk about the food pantry except to invite others to join her in working there. Harley finds solace in imagining a small group of women stocking the shelves. When in despair after an unfortunate turn of events, he wishes for beer but turns instead to thoughts of his parents and of her. Meg’s unwavering faith, and the stability of her altruistic routine despite the upheaval of JCow Industries, are his best comfort.
Far more importantly, Meg’s quiet, constant stable faith allows the Jesus Cow incident to work for good in the community rather than empty profit. It is hard to say more without spoiling the book, which, if you’ve read this far in my little blog post, you will certainly want to buy for yourself. The marvelous power of Meg’s presence in Swivel is that she turns moments of heartache and nostalgia into opportunities to practice something meaningful. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, she knows how to “preach by [her] deeds” (The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi IV.17). And thanks to her, it is in the upheaval of JCow Industries—and not through the flashy face-of-Jesus icon—that several citizens of Swivel see for themselves how the hand of God is moving.