I have no idea how David Duchovny pitched his new novel Holy Cow to an agent or editor, but I imagine it went something like this:
“It’s the story of a milking cow named Elsie Bovary who, one fateful night, happens to catch a glimpse of an industrial meat-processing documentary as she’s passing by a farmhouse window. After viewing the film’s graphic slaughterhouse content and passing out, Elsie rises to her hooves a changed bovine. Suddenly gone are the bucolic days of grazing; now all Elsie can think about is getting off the farm and escaping her inevitable death.
”So, she reads up on world history (when the farmers are out of the house and she has their encyclopedias to herself) and decides she’ll go to India, where cows are considered sacred. On her odyssey, she’s joined by a pig named Jerry who wants to make it to Israel (“Because they hate us pigs so much they won’t eat us!”) and a turkey named Tom who is terrified of Thanksgiving and eager to get to Turkey. (“Do you think for a moment they are going to eat the thing their country is named after?”)
“After stealing an iPhone, learning to walk on two legs, and shoplifting some disguises (notably, velvet shorts like the guy from AC/DC and Ray-Bans), the three animals buy some Groupon plane tickets and make it to the Middle East where all sorts of shenanigans happen. Like meeting Joe Camel and getting attacked on the Palestinian border and eating psilocybin mushrooms at Chowpatty Beach.
“In the end, however, the book is not really about any of that. It’s really a novel about humans. About how awful they can be. It’s social commentary told by our furry and feathered friends. It’s a book about how all animals, humans especially, can and should do better.”
If you think that sounds like the zaniest premise on the planet, you’re right. Holy Cow is, hooves down, easily the weirdest book I’ve ever read. It’s also smart, hilarious, and full of good lessons. Just don’t let yourself get hung up on the impossibilities of it all, like on-time international flights and security dogs who regret not becoming seeing-eye dogs. That said, here are six reasons Holy Cow should be your next read.
For the Laughs
Duchovny has loaded this book with bon mots, puns, witticisms, and knee-slappers. Some are LOL-ers, others groaners, but the novel is heavy with humor. Such as: “Shalom started dancing the hora and singing ‘If I were a rich pig, hamma deedy dada deedy dada dum…’ from Fiddler on the Hoof.” And: “The Turkish coffee was exactly as advertised. After a few laps with my tongue, I felt like I could sprint for miles and pee for hours.” Or this scene, when the farm animals happen upon some city rats at a dumpster: “‘This is rat turf. You won’t survive three days here…You get high?…I got sense, blow, ecstasy—whatevs you want. You just left the farm for the pharmacy.’”
For the Asides
Duchovny (okay, fine: Elsie) charms readers with frequent parenthetical references to his (her) editor, who keeps encouraging product placement, discouraging religious conflict, and requesting more pop culture references to keep the manuscript hip. According to Elsie, her editor wants her to “just make sure [she] make[s] a reference to Gilligan’s Island or Star Wars or Depeche Mode or Chia Pets or something, cover the decades—sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, aughts—and the occasional penis joke.” These weird proofreading moments happen throughout. And if you can embrace the image of a cow dictating her memoir and haggling with a publisher, you’ll enjoy these hilarious asides.
For the Illustrations
That’s right. The book is illustrated. Part Far Side cartoon, part kindergarten art, the book’s bold and goofy Sharpie-style drawings are perfectly paired with Duchovny’s whacked-out prose. They deliver the punch of a Rorschach test and the punchline of a good one-liner. Not to mention, all are captioned appropriately with quotes lifted straight from the text. Like: “Birds fly. That’s what they do.” (Illustration of Tom the turkey piloting a stolen commercial jet.)
I have a hard time recalling a more ridiculously funny literary character than Jerry the Jewish pig (aka Shalom), who totters around on two feet, carries a Torah, speaks both Pig Latin and Yiddish, and is dead set on getting circumcised before his big trip to Israel. “‘How long will this take?’ I asked. Shalom said, ‘A good while. See, it takes an hour to mow a small lawn and a couple of hours to mow a big lawn, if you catch my drift.’ Then he turned on his hoof with bravado and went inside.”
For the Duchovny-ness
This book is rife with classic Duchovny. I know, I know. You probably shouldn’t really hear the writer or see the actor when you’re reading a book or watching a movie, but COME ON. Just as fans suspect Duchovny’s bad-boy charm is reflected in Californication’s fictional Hank Moody and his cynical intellect is mirrored in The X-Files‘ fictional Fox Mulder, Duchovnyites will get their fix by reading the words of fictional Elsie, who likely represents the goofier, more earnest side of the David we all think we know.
For the Message
As completely bonkers as this book is, it’s also well written (Duchovny holds a Master’s in English from Yale), and it makes a point, or points, about a lot of things. Yes, about the meat industry and the leather industry and the industrial farming industry and human beings’ general wastefulness and greed, as well as big subjects like race and religion and war. But it also casts a light on a bigger stretch of philosophical farmland. Why are we here? What is the point? What should we do? In the end, (spoiler alert) Elsie leaves us with some real words of wisdom: “This is my religion—we’re all animals, perfect animals created in the infinite image and imagination of nature. It’s a life not without pain and competition and suffering, but it can be a life of dignity and mutual respect. I don’t know what awaits me when Tom brings us in for a smooth landing at JFK. A heroine’s welcome? The bestseller list? Hollywood? The slaughterhouse? It’s funny, because after all this, I have been thinking…that maybe I would like to have a calf of my own. A few years out to pasture with a couple of kids seems like heaven to me right now.”