The Washington Post
Bible Salesmanby Clyde Edgerton
Preston Clearwater has been a criminal since stealing two chain saws and 1,600 pairs of aviator sunglasses from the army during the Second World War. Back on the road in postwar North Carolina, now a member of a car-theft ring, he picks up hitchhiking Henry Dampier, an innocent twenty-year-old Bible salesman. Clearwater immediately recognizes Henry as smart but
Preston Clearwater has been a criminal since stealing two chain saws and 1,600 pairs of aviator sunglasses from the army during the Second World War. Back on the road in postwar North Carolina, now a member of a car-theft ring, he picks up hitchhiking Henry Dampier, an innocent twenty-year-old Bible salesman. Clearwater immediately recognizes Henry as smart but gullible, just the associate he needs--one who will believe Clearwater is working undercover for the F.B.I.; one who will drive the cars Clearwater steals as Clearwater follows along in his own car at a safe distance. Henry joyfully sees a chance to lead a dual life as a Bible salesman and a G-man.
During his hilarious and scary adventures, Henry grapples with doubts about the Bible's accuracy, and we learn of his fundamentalist upbringing, an upbringing that doesn't prepared him for his new life. As he falls in love with the captivating Marleen Green and questions his religious training, Henry begins to see he's being used--that he is on his own in a way he never imagined.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
In this rollicking, rambling road novel of the post-WWII South, Preston Clearwater, a dead ringer for Clark Gable, steals cars and passes himself off as an undercover FBI agent. His mark is naïve 20-year-old Bible salesman Henry Dampier, whom Preston convinces to drive the cars to various paint shops (telling Henry that they have infiltrated a car-theft ring), while Preston follows in his own legally registered Chrysler. Preston undertakes more audacious forms of crime, while earnest Henry has a reunion with his fundamentalist family, listens to his cousin's scheme to market a new ad gimmick (called "the bumper sticker"), falls in love with roadside fruit-stand proprietor Marlene Greene and even manages to sell a few Bibles along the way. The hitch is his involvement with Preston: Henry will have to get wise to preserve all he has gained. Too many flashbacks to Henry's Baptist roots slow him down on the way to the novel's suspenseful climax and moving epilogue, but the result is one of the better takes on Southern Bible salesman buddy stories since Moses Pray and Addie Pray of Paper Moon. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Preston and Henry make an odd couple. Henry is an innocent, 20-year-old Bible salesman whom Preston picks up hitchhiking one day in postwar North Carolina. Preston has been looking for a new patsy to help him with his car theft ring. Of course he tells Henry that he is with the FBI and that they are out to catch the criminals behind the crimes. The earnest young Henry loves the idea of being a G-man and serving the Lord. As the two travel around the South, the reader learns not only about their escapades but also about Henry's upbringing, his first romance, and, finally, his questioning of the very religion that had him out on the road in the first place. In this comedic novel, Edgerton, the author of seven best sellers (e.g., Walking Across Egypt), gives us a satisfying twist on the coming-of-age tale. For all public libraries, especially where Edgerton has a faithful following. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/08.]
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Read an Excerpt
The Bible Salesman
By Clyde Edgerton
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One 1950
A man driving a new Chrysler automobile along a dirt road near the North Carolina mountain town of Cressler saw a boy up ahead, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, with a suitcase and valise by his feet. The boy was standing in front of a grocery store, thumbing a ride.
The man, working his way up, belonged to a crime outfit. He was now at the car-theft level, hungry for wealth and the tense excitement he found nowhere outside crime.
The boy was a twenty-year-old Bible salesman whose aunt raised him to be a Christian gentleman. He was hungry for adventure and good food. He had recently started reading the Bible on his own rather than as directed by his aunt and church elders, and he hadn't been able to get past those first two chapters of Genesis-because they amazed and confused him.
The man thought he recognized something smart and businesslike in the boy's stance-almost at attention-and he also sensed some gullibility and innocence. His last associate had not worked out. He slowed and pulled over in the rising dust. If this one didn't seem promising, he'd just let him out down the road.
The boy loaded his things into the backseat, closed the back door, bent his head forward, and folded into the front passenger seat. The man noticed the boy's leftover belt end hanging down freely without being put through the first loop, his hair standing up on top in back. Maybe he won't so smart.
"Nice car," said the boy. "'Fifty Chrysler." He reached out his hand. "I'm Henry Dampier." Henry was surprised at the man's big hand. And he had big ears. He looked a little bit like Clark Gable, but without a mustache.
"Preston Clearwater," said the man. "Where you headed?"
"Anywhere south. Where it's a little warmer. I came up here earlier than I ought to have." The man was dressed up neat, and he'd shaved real close that morning, it looked like. He'd have a dark beard if he grew it out. He was wearing cuff links, and Henry had never seen those except at a prom.
"I'm selling Bibles," said Henry. "But it's too cold sleeping in warehouses and barns up in this high altitude." He noticed how smoothly the car glided over the dirt road. "Where you headed?"
"Winston-Salem, or maybe Charlotte-for tonight, anyway."
The night before, Henry had sat up late in a deserted warehouse razoring out the front pages of new Bibles that had arrived in Cressler, general delivery-from Chicago-in a cardboard box. Each page said, "Complimentary Copy from the Chicago Bible Society."
Henry looked at Mr. Clearwater's hands. They were clean. "What line of work you in?"
None of your goddamned business, thought Clearwater. "Car business," he said. He pulled out a pack of Luckies, shook up a couple. "Cigarette?"
"Sure." Henry had bought his first-ever pack of cigarettes only a few days earlier.
Clearwater pushed in the cigarette lighter. "Where you get your Bibles?"
"Where do I get my Bibles?" Henry looked at him. Could he know somehow? "That's kind of a long story." He did want to tell about it-this idea he got from the fiddle player at Indian Springs in Cressler: instead of ordering Bibles and having to pay, why didn't he just go ahead and order a box from one of those places up north, or in Nashville, Tennessee, maybe, that gave away Bibles, tell them he had a bunch of sinners to give them to, razor out the pages that said they're free, and sell them? The fiddle player said he'd had that idea when he thought about selling Bibles himself, but gave it up when his wife had twins and his mama died. Henry had wondered if he was kidding, but took the idea anyway.
So Henry had been ordering a box of free Bibles about once a month, each from a different place so that nobody got suspicious. In the letter to them he kind of hinted that he was a preacher. But nobody got hurt, and in the end more people ended up reading the Bible, which was good, and now his billfold, his spare billfold-stashed in his suitcase-was considerably thick with money, somewhere between forty and fifty dollars, and some uncashed checks. He could go ahead and stay in a decent room for a change. And now here he was riding in a brand-new Chrysler. With a man who looked like he knew how to do things out in the world.
"This smells like a new car too," said Henry.
"It's pretty new."
Henry noticed the ivory-looking knob on the end of the gearshift-he couldn't quite see the top speed on the speedometer. "Six or eight?" he asked.
"Eight. Hundred and thirty-five horsepower."
"That's pretty good. So, do you sell cars?"
"Yeah." Clearwater, with his lips closed, passed his tongue over his front teeth. "I do that."
Henry figured he'd be quiet, give Mr. Clearwater a chance to kind of talk or not talk. He didn't want to chitchat himself into getting dropped off somewhere.
"Where you from?" asked Clearwater.
"Simmons, North Carolina. Down east."
"Is that anywhere close to McNeill and Swan Island?"
"About an hour or so. I went there a few times when I was growing up."
"I know some people there. Mitchells."
"I don't know any Mitchells down there. My uncle took us all there one time-me and my sister and aunt-to see this big dance hall that was one of the first places in North Carolina that used electricity fancylike. They showed movies on a screen set up in the surf."
"I heard about that."
Clearwater's boss, Blinky, owned a warehouse in McNeill that held some stolen army equipment. It was part of Blinky's cover-a business called Johnson and Ball Construction and Industrial Machine Repair Company.
The drive to Winston-Salem would take three or four hours. Clearwater began to feel Henry out, learned that he was raised by his aunt and uncle. That his daddy got killed right after Henry was born, hit by a piece of timber sticking out from the back of a moving truck. That he was a Christian. That he liked baseball and had played on a church team coached by two men who worked at a funeral home and used baby caskets to hold the bases and other equipment. That he went to Bible-selling school instead of business school and was taught to sell Bibles by a man who walked back and forth in front of the class, chain-smoking cigarettes and coughing and telling funny stories. That he had an older sister named Caroline and an uncle he liked to talk about-Uncle Jack. And a cousin-Carson. And though Henry didn't say it, Clearwater could sense he was a virgin, because of how he'd talked around some stuff about women. That was good-it'd help both of them stay out of woman trouble if he did hire him.
He also found out the boy knew when to shut up-when Clearwater was talking. Damned important. And he seemed to have an adequate sense of adventure without a too-big portion of carelessness. In fact, Clearwater felt a little bit lucky to have found this Henry Dampier.
Along about Wilkesboro, down out of the real mountains and into hilly country, Clearwater pulled over, stopped, and asked Henry to drive.
The boy was clearly happy to be behind the wheel of a car, and he was a good driver, kept his eye on the road, didn't go too fast, drove around holes. Clearwater talked some about his own service in the army, in France. He didn't tell Henry he'd met Blinky there and that they-with creative paperwork and bold presentations of self-managed to steal two dump trucks, a forklift, four jeeps, seven chain saws, and sixteen hundred pairs of aviator sunglasses. Blinky had them shipped to a warehouse in McNeill owned by his Aunt Thelma, the nonsuspecting wife of his dead uncle, Gabe Mitchell. He told Henry he'd been to business school, but he didn't tell him that that had slowed him down and left him behind Blinky in the crime business-and now he was trying to catch up. He told him some stuff about his communist mama, who believed in Jesus. She believed the Indians were communists and that Jesus was a communist. Course you couldn't talk about the communists now without somebody thinking you were one, Clearwater said, like he always said when he talked about his mama. And this Henry Dampier knew something about the Russians and Chinese and the atom bomb, more than he could say about some of the potential associates he'd come across since he'd turned loose his last one. And even though all that was true about Clearwater's mama, a lot of people didn't believe it, but this one seemed like he did, so Clearwater reckoned he was maybe gullible enough.
They stopped in Winston-Salem in the late afternoon, at the Sanderson Motel. Clearwater would pick up some "sheets" there-information, leads, suggested marks. He had a route that took him throughout the South, like any other traveling businessman.
"I need to do some work in town," said Clearwater. "You go on in and get a room. It's best if I don't appear to be traveling with anybody. I can explain at breakfast. Right over there at Mae's." Mae's had a big yellow sign on top of a small café. "I have a job available you might want. I'll see you over there at seven-thirty?"
Blinky, from his cover-the Johnson and Ball Company in McNeill-provided the sheets. Most of his leads required reconnaissance, some required planning, and all thefts were to be reported.
Clearwater researched and planned carefully. During the next day or two he'd find a mark, make maps, decide alibis, and plan exactly how to use his new associate, if the boy took the job. An associate would certainly reduce his chances of getting caught.
The motel clerk, a little man with thick glasses, gave Henry a key and a flyswatter. On the counter was a wire display rack holding postcards, a color photograph of the motel on the front of each. Henry bought two. Displayed under a glass countertop were necklaces, rings, and packs of exotic cards. "How much is a pack of those cards?"
"Twenty-five cents. I got some under the counter for fifty cents. Want to take a look?"
"Maybe tomorrow. I'll take that twenty-five-cent pack, though."
In his room, Henry put his suitcase in a corner and his valise on the bed. An electric lamp made from an oil lamp stood on a chest of drawers beside a radio. He noticed three cigarette burns along the edge of the chest top. Some burns had been sanded off, it looked like. He hung his suit and his sport coat on a wire hanger in the small closet, took off his shirt and undershirt and dropped them in a corner. He'd wash them in the tub, do some ironing if they had an iron in the office. He looked in each dresser drawer. Top: empty. Middle: a book of matches. He pocketed it. Bottom: empty.
This prospect with Mr. Clearwater could get him into something a little higher up-well, not out of Bible selling altogether; he didn't want that. He could keep selling Bibles on weekends, at least.
A full-length mirror leaned against the wall beside the dresser, bottom left corner broken off. He dropped his boxer shorts, kicked them into the corner, turned sideways, drew in his stomach, expanded his chest, clinched his fist, hardened his arm muscles. He turned and faced the mirror, crossed his arms. He turned his head left, right. Checked his hangings. They always looked bigger in a mirror than when you looked down.
He stopped up the tub drain with the chained stopper and let the water run longer than he ever did at home. Aunt Dorie let him use only just enough water to reach the back of the tub. He stepped in and sat slowly. The water was hot. It had been almost two weeks since he'd had a shower at a barbershop. He slid down so his head rested against the back of the tub and closed his eyes. He thought about this possible new job. Mr. Clearwater looked like he made a lot of money.
He wet and then soaped his head, neck, arms, under his arms, his chest and back, pushed his midsection up out of the water, soaped his hangings and the crack of his ass. He then slid down into the water, pushing his knees up, splashed water over his chest. He stuck fingers in his ears, dropped his head back into the water, held it there and shook it to rinse his hair. He sat up. The water was gray. He splashed water over himself some more, stood, stepped out onto a small, round rug, dried himself with the towel, wrapped it around his waist, walked back to the standing mirror, and looked at himself again.
He dressed in clean clothes from his suitcase. The white shirt was wrinkled, but the pants weren't too bad. He buckled his belt. He found his long black comb in the inside flap of his suitcase and combed his hair back while standing in front of the full-length mirror. Back at the sink he wet the washcloth, wrung it out, and smoothed down his hair. Like Uncle Jack.
What kind of job might it be? Anybody driving a new Chrysler could probably pay a good salary-or worked for somebody who could.
It was four o'clock, not too late to sell a Bible or two and maybe get invited somewhere for supper. He walked north along the road to a row of houses he'd seen from the motel office. He carried his valise and, in his head, lessons from Mr. Fletcher.
My job is to teach you how to sell Bibles, gentlemen. Period. End of story. From an economic point of view there are two and only two sides to every customer encounter: making the sale or not making the sale. Economics is the invisible hand that moves the world. So: two sides-the head, the tail; a sale, no sale. Kaput. The end. And you will squeeze every opportunity out of every moment of every customer encounter to make that sale. So now, gentlemen. Let's start by writing down a definition of Bible selling.
Bible selling ... is the act ... of getting customers ... to behave in ways ... assumed ... to lead to ... Bible buying. Bible selling is the act of getting customers to behave in ways assumed to lead to Bible buying.
Let's all read it together now, and then you'll memorize it, and I can promise you it will be one of the last statements you remember as you pass from this mortal realm into the next.
Bible selling is the act of
He walked past three houses that didn't look inviting-dirt yards. Except one of the yards was raked. Next, after a short stretch of woods, three houses with lawns and shrubs sat back a ways from the road. He checked in his valise to be sure the Bibles were arranged, pulled out the box containing a Bible, walked up and knocked on the screen door. He heard steps. The inside door opened and a woman stood holding a cooking pot and a drying rag.
"How do you do, ma'am? My name is Henry Dampier, and I have a little something in this box that is mighty nice that I'd like to show you if you don't mind. It's something I think you might like-if I could step inside for a minute, maybe."
"I appreciate it, but I ain't interested in buying nothing today. My cat died this morning. I'm behind on everything. I just got to washing and drying my dinner dishes."
"Oh, mercy. That cat was probably just like a member of the family."
"She was. She sure was." The woman stood without moving, not much life in her face, her eyes.
want to keep standing out there on the porch with the screen door between y'all. You want to get inside, and you do that by looking and talking in ways to make her like you in about ten seconds-that's all you got.
"Oh Lord," said Henry. "I remember when we buried Trixie, my uncle's dog. It was all tears around the house when Trixie died. My sister especially. What was your cat's name, ma'am?"
"Bunny. I called her Bunny Rabbit."
He saw that her hand which had been against the door screen was still there. "I'm awful sorry. Did I introduce myself?" It was a matter of seconds now.
"You did, but I done forgot your name."
"Henry Dampier, ma'am. I tell you what, ma'am. Have you buried Bunny yet?"
"No, I ain't been able to bring myself to do it. Burt-Burt's my husband-he'll do it when he gets home."
"I was going to offer to say a little prayer at Bunny's grave."
Sometimes, gentlemen, you'll need to improvise. Jazz musicians do that when they put new notes where a melody used to be. They get off the beaten path, but brilliantwise.
"I'd be happy," said Henry, "just to step around back and bury her, if you got a shovel. I'm very partial to cats."
"Oh, that would be real nice, Mr. Dampier." She stepped out onto the porch. "I been here by myself, and I just couldn't bring myself to do it, so I was going to wait until Burt got home. Bunny's under the back steps." They were slowly moving toward the porch steps.
"If you want to," said Henry, "you can stay in the house and I'll do it, if you'll tell me a good place for a grave. I don't believe I got your name-not that I really need to, but it's always-"
"I'm Martha Kelly." She reached out her hand, and Henry took it. "Well, that would be real nice," she said. "You can see her rear end out from under the steps. I just couldn't bring myself to ... She's over fifteen years old. Anywhere out in the edge of the woods would be good-straight back beyond the middle apple tree back there. The shovel is leaning against the back of the house. Lord, it's been a blue, blue day. She was like a, well, like a child. Just ... just knock on the back door when you're finished. Oh my goodness. Poor Bunny. Poor Bunny."
Excerpted from The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton
Copyright © 2008 by Clyde Edgerton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Clyde Edgerton was born in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of eight previous novels, including, Walking Across Egypt and Lunch at the Piccadilly. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and five of his novels have been New York Times Notable Books. Edgerton teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is a member of the Fellowship of Souther Writers. He lives in Wilmington with his wife, Kristina, and their children.
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This author is truly gifted when it comes to telling a story. Great read.
There are a handful of authors who might be rightly described as national treasures. If I were to compile such a list Clyde Edgerton's name would be there in bold and underlined. He is a generous, guileless, if you will, writer, completely without artifice. His prose flows freely, his words are well chosen. Reading Edgerton is both relaxing and absorbing, very much like listening to a tale told by a julep oiled spellbinder on a lazy summer afternoon. You're captivated by his words, the verbal pictures he paints, and lean forward to catch every inflection. Edgerton has been dubbed a regional writer, not so, although his settings are often the South. His understanding of the frailties of human nature spans state lines. Edgerton's characters are frequently quite eccentric even in today's ever surprising citizenry, yet he treats them with affection and respect. These imagined people can be both laugh out loud funny and endearing. Who but this author would introduce an older woman who lives with a house full of talking cats? (She throws her voice so that the biblically named felines seem to speak even when company hasn't come). Or, when someone has gone to his heavenly rest, one of the mourners approaches the casket, looks at the departed and says, 'I like that red tie. It gives him a little color in his complexion.' Then adds, 'They do get pale at a time like this.' Vintage Edgerton. Twenty-year-old Henry Dampier has grown up in the postwar South tended to by Bible believing Aunt Dorie and, for a while, by fun loving Uncle Steve. He is inexperienced in the ways of the world or of women and a graduate of Bible- selling school. Good book stocked valise in hand he starts out, hitchhiking on a road near Cressler, North Carolina. As luck or fate would have it along comes Preston Clearwater, a charismatic, glib World War II veteran who has risen from swiping aviator sunglasses to stealing cars. What Preston needs is someone to do drive the stolen cars to their destination while he safely follows along behind. Henry is naive enough to initially believe that Preston is an FBI agent involved in a complex plot to capture the car thieves,. Further, he feels fortunate that Preston has had the insight to recognize Henry's latent talents and ask him to be part of the operation. All goes along smoothly as Henry earns more money than Bibles would bring. He enjoys staying in motels for the first time where he can let the water fill the tub as much as he wishes. At home 'Aunt Dorie let him use only just enough water to reach the back of the tub.' Henry spends his evenings studying the Bible as Aunt Dorie would have wished, but is confused by some of the inconsistencies that he finds. However, such quandaries vanish when he finds the comely proprietress of a roadside fruit stand. The Bible Salesman is exactly what we expect from Clyde Edgerton - rollicking, riotous, and simply wonderful.
This was a fun read - not too heavy. Edgerton has a nice writing style and an equally interesting sense of humor. The characters and settings were well developed, characters saucy in fact. The title might be off-putting, but irreverence is the overall effect.
A story about a naive 20-year old, raised in an evangelical Baptist household coming of age in 1950, unknowingly working for organized crime. Engaging characters and subtle humor throughout, and gripping tension as the book nears its climax. Worthy of reading a second time.