Few contemporary writers are able to capture the essence of small-town Wisconsin as meticulously or as relentlessly as Michael Perry. His bestselling memoirs—Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time; Truck: A Love Story; and Visiting Tom: A Man, A Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace, among others—along with his weekly “Roughneck Grace” column in the Wisconsin State Journal, have earned him a sizable and devoted fan base in the state and beyond.
Yet, before I even read the first page of The Jesus Cow, Perry’s first foray into literary fiction for adults, I found myself wondering if his superb grasp of rural Midwest idiosyncrasy would translate into fiction. While not as heart-rending as much of his nonfiction, The Jesus Cow still contains his signature mélange of careful character studies, riotous one-liners, and goofy, good-natured fun.
The novel opens on Christmas Eve as Harley Jackson wanders into his barn to discover a newborn Holstein calf with the unmistakable likeness of Jesus Christ depicted on its flank. Harley, a 42-year-old bachelor who considers “low overhead” the secret to happiness, takes one look at the calf and says: “Well, that’s trouble.” Of course, this isn’t Harley’s only bit of trouble. He’s trying to keep his deceased father’s farmland from being completely gobbled up by Klute Sorensen—the overly confident, Hummer-driving, motivational audiobook-listening owner of Clover Blossom Estates. Harley’s also falling in love with Mindy Johnson, a self-assured new woman in town who drives a beefy F-250 pickup truck and wears a particular pair of boots, “sturdy wafflestompers with some scuff on them,” that make his heart skip a beat.
Though the calf could solve Harley’s financial woes (“Get a lawyer—and start printin’ T-shirts,” his friend Billy Tripp advises), Harley initially aims to keep the calf hidden from the rest of the world. He knows that his honest, hard-working parents wouldn’t have approved of him turning this miracle into a profit. But when his mailwoman catches sight of the calf wandering outside the barn, she snaps some pictures and posts them to the Internet. Within hours, the photos have gone viral, #JesusCow is trending, and Harley’s life has suddenly assumed a great deal of new overhead.
Perry’s debut boasts a brilliant cast of characters, with each townsperson quirkier and more complicated than the next. From Carolyn Sawchuck (a failed academic with a motor oil recycling problem) to Maggie Jankowski (a Catholic widow who runs a car-crushing business) to Billy Tripp (a decorated combat veteran who lives “surrounded by stacks of books and an innumerable census of cats in a single-wide trailer”), every character is multilayered. Even despicable Klute Sorensen is lonely enough to elicit sympathy, when he’s not spouting hokey business aphorisms.
Fans of Perry’s nonfiction will take pleasure in spotting the aspects of The Jesus Cow that bear a strong resemblance to details from his own life. The fictional town of Swivel (population: 562), marked by its four-legged water tower and social hub of a gas station, makes a nearly perfect stand-in for Perry’s hometown of New Auburn (or, as he affectionately calls it, “Nobbern”). Harley takes after his creator, too. He volunteers for the local fire department, loves Loretta Lynn, and reminisces about high school kisses in the back of a basketball bus. Perry knows his small Wisconsin town inside and out, from Main Street to the outlying farms, and the material works just as well for novel fodder as it does in his personal essays.
With its silly premise and lighthearted tone, The Jesus Cow doesn’t contain much more than a surface-level amount of pathos. But while Perry’s novel doesn’t resonate the way his nonfiction does, lacking the poignancy that comes from his portrayals of real people and real life, it’s still an immensely pleasurable read: offbeat, absorbing, and laugh-out-loud funny.