Secrets and snakes, rock and gospel, guilt and grace.
The Psalms of Israel Jones is the story of a father and son’s journey towards spiritual redemption. This novel tells the tale of a famous father trapped inside the suffocating world of rock and roll, and his son who is stranded within the bounds of conventional religion.
When Reverend Thomas Johnson receives an anonymous phone call, he learns his Dylanesque rock star father is acting deranged on stage, where he’s being worshipped by a cult of young people who slash their faces during performances. In his declining years, Israel Jones has begun to incite his fans to violence. They no longer want to watch the show—they want to be the show.
Eager to escape troubles with his congregation as well as gain an apology from his dad for abandoning his family, Reverend Johnson leaves town and joins Israel Jones’s Eternal Tour. This decision propels him to the center of a rock and roll hell, giving him one last chance to reconnect with his father, wife, congregation—and maybe even God.
The Psalms of Israel Jones is the 2010 Hackney Literary Award winner for an unpublished manuscript.
|Publisher:||West Virginia University Press|
|Edition description:||1st Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Ed Davis taught writing and humanities courses at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio for thirty-five years before retiring in 2011. He has also taught both fiction and poetry at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and is the author of the novels I Was So Much Older Then and The Measure of Everything, four poetry chapbooks, and many published stories and poems in anthologies and journals. He is also the author of Time of the Light, a poetry collection.
Read an Excerpt
I stand mesmerized by the cacophony of sound and color. The room, as large as a dancehall, is alive with blazing neon and electric guitarat first I think we’ve stepped inside a roadhouse circa 1958 with a rockabilly band in full swinguntil I see the hand-lettered sign at the front: No bad langage. No woman in pants. No long hair.
We aren’t in a rowdy nightclub where a pimply-faced Jerry Lee is wailing; we are in church: Whitechapel Church of Lindsey, West Virginia, to be exact, and it’s 2005. But before I can fully savor the first flush of recognition, I see, lifted high above the whirlwind crowd, shimmering obscenely like a naked breast at communion, a tight coil. The sound I make is thankfully absorbed into the din surrounding me. A man holds a large snake in his palm.
No need to fear being forced to the front where the serpents are. I know, according to the documentary I’d seen in seminary, there are many other snakes, that they are kept in wooden cages with chicken wire up front until the right moment, when the Holy Spirit dictates. I also know they use rattlers, or, failing that, copperheads; that before us lies a great mystery as old as time, as universal as pain; and that it does not require my belief to work its wonders. When someone pats my arm, I turn and see Murphy sitting in the back pew against the wall. Dad sits beside him, his gnarled hands loosely clasped before him, the veritable picture of unhip humility. What in the world are a rock legend, his lapsed-pastor son and alcoholic manager seeking here? But it will do no good to ask. My father doesn’t answer questions; he takes hostages.
“We’ll just watch,” Murphy shouts near my ear.
I sit down and face forward. I’ve gone from a crowded, diesel-reeking bus to a snake-handling church in under an hour. Am I rolling toward Nineveh or heading back inside the whale’s belly? (The latter, I figure, strangely calm.)
The music, I now see, pours from the hands of a teenaged boy sitting on an ancient tube amplifier that once might’ve belonged to Chuck Berry. The kid’s old Les Paul sounds good as he fingers non-stop lead riffs. No chords, no discernible melody, just continuous sound. I have to laugh. Maybe that’s all he knows. But it is enough, along with the tambourine, flailed by a tight-permed, grey-haired grandmother moving in rhythm (not dancing, no!) with the others up near the front.
Every now and then the sea of bodies parts, and I glimpse a man holding a snake on his palms, his sweaty brow furrowed in concentration, and I can’t help wondering what he is seeing and feeling. Judging by his closed eyes, sweating forehead and swaying body, it is the opposite of fear. (And what is that? Love?) He handles the treasure in his hand so gently, making me imagine those coal-seamed hands on his wife or children, hopefully just as tender. Then up fly both arms as he holds his offering aloft. To God? Or to his fellows? “See: I am this moment without sin.” To be bittenand people are, but not as often as you’d thinkmeans taking your eyes off the savior, or worse, some secret sin now bared before all. And the pain of public humiliation probably dulls, even annihilates, the pain of the bite, which a preacher on the video claimed was like a thousand toothaches.
I lapse into a daze that carries some part of memy soul?to the front of the church. At the same time I know I’m dreaming, it’s intensely real. The walls, the wailing, stomping, suffocating mob surrounding me fall away; even the enveloping night, suffocating, too, in its vile darknessall fall away and I enter a waking vision . . .
I bend, open my palms, and somehow the serpent is in my hand. I do not clearly see the instant when flesh and scales meld. (The Lord takes care of thatotherwise it could be too terrible to bear.) Once I feel the steely weight of living chain in my hands, obedience is complete. I am the boy with his fingers gritting against strings; the preacher striking the anvil air with his words; the children clapping in their pews; the old woman beating the tambourine against her hip. We are all part and parcel of the same body. For, once my arms are aloft, I look around me at the swirl, see sweat purling on the end of a young man’s nose, scent the thickness of menstruating females, hear the roar of blood in my head, though I’m calm as a babe in Mama’s arms. The creature in my hands is of God, therefore is God.
As if I’ve been underwater, my dreaming mind breaks the surface, I’m back inside my body at the back of the church, my hands are empty and I hear the words they are singing:
“If you don’t want it, give it to me.”
Grotesque. Beyond bizarre. Yet somehow as ordinary as any Christian’s belief in miracles.
“If you don’t want it . . .”
I glance at Murphy, staring straight ahead. Dad’s manager tolerates this as he does all of my father’s eccentricities; it’s an experience, like his boss’s awful concerts, to be endured. Back at the motel, after Dad’s show later tonight, there’ll be time for him to erase visions of snake-waving ecstatics with a quart or so of bourbon before bed. He looks as bored as a kindergartner watching porn.
Less than two hours ago, I’d met Murphy at the auditorium’s back door. It had taken eight hours from New Prestonburg, Ohio, to Charleston, West Virginia, on the busand I had the bad luck to sit next to a gum-chewing cell-phone addict.
The Whale was parked behind the auditorium. Good thing Murphy prepared me. No longer blue, the re-tooled Greyhound has been painted dull beige. It mostly fools media, if not fans. If I hadn’t been so tense, I would’ve laughed at the block lettering: Senior Tours: See American Historical Sites. I wasn’t about to barge on-boardit’s been my plan, since getting the phone call, to observe unobserved.
Beside the auditorium door my father would soon walk through leaned Gunnar Oesterreich. I grinned at the appearance of the big German kid Dad adopted as his personal bodyguard back in ’91: a foreign exchange student who’d defected, first, from his sponsoring family; then from his native country for reasons never clear to me.
Gunnar is Dad’s doppelganger, whose entire spoken word-stock consists of one-word sentences: Stop. Come. No. Though he hadn’t laid eyes on me in four years, the German nodded solemnly and summoned Murphy to my side within moments.
When the manager emerged from darkness, he was grinning his satanic smile. His olive face looked like the cracked leather of a suitcase that had lain in an attic for decades. As usual, he reeked of alcohol and tobacco.
“Good to see you, Skip. I mean, Reverend.”
“You, too.” I hadn’t expected to be glad to see the alcoholic most responsible for my dad’s departure from any semblance of reality; Murphy Angus Kelleher: pimp, jester and errand-boy; who provided his boss with so much more than women, drugs and amusement, who provided him complete freedom from life, period. My father had never written a check, bought a gift or shopped for insurance. Murphy was the filter, fence, door and wall against distractions, enabling him to do all he’d ever wanted to door at least all he’d ever donewhich was write, record and sing songs.
Murphy wrung my hand, and his felt warm and rough. “Does he know I’m here?” I said.
He shook his head.
“Is it drugs?”
Another solemn shake. “Since the Bigger One, nada. No drugs.” He snorted. “Not even cigarettes.”
He smiled, proud daddy of a precocious six-year-old. After Dad’s first heart attack in ‘01, dubbed the Big One (Dad named everything), until the second, two years later, I figured he’d probably abstained from cigarettes, booze and various controlled substances for a month or two, then gone right back, exceeding his earlier consumption. Resulting of course in the Bigger One. I’d been AWOL for that one.
He stuck out his chest, gripped his belt buckle, a tarantula, with his bricklayer’s hands. “I’d know.”
“Whatever you say, Murph.” Before I knew it, I reached out and squeezed his bicep, my pastorly way of solacing men, and though I recognized it as a mistakeyou don’t touch men like Murphy unless you want to feel their fangsthe aging alcoholic smiled, the corners of his watery, pickled blue eyes furrowing as his face unfolded a little.
“I’ll go get him.”
And like that, the journey began.
The inside of Whitechapel Church is now sweltering with over-heated bodies, a holy-roller mosh pit from the fifties. While the walls ring with the too-loud-by-half guitar assault, the bodies continue to sway and weave together. Before long, I see a grandmotherly woman, her thick glasses blanking out her eyes, holding two coils above her iron-grey hair squeezed into a tight bun. Her mouth twists as she speaks in a language only her savior knows. I am surprised to find myself unafraid, resigned. Though I am not about to feel that power through my hands, I respect their dire need and, especially in my current Godless state, envy their faith.
Leaning forward to see if I can discern anything from my father’s face, I see the pew where he sat is empty. Arms folded, Murphy stares into the middle distance and shakes his head. “Guess Boss wants us to see this.”
I stand up so fast it dizzies me. “Let’s go.”
And I am out the door, Murphy behind me. Outside, the cold is like a punch in the gut. A nearly full moon appears and disappears among shifting clouds. I am furious with my father. This is the man I remember: the teacher-preacher-prophet-prick who makes it abundantly clear who is the moral meridian, the superior consciousness. Well, screw him. Now I have a few credentials, too, even if they aren’t anything he will ever acknowledge.
I half-expect to find him smoking a joint, even though Murphy said my father had quit drugs. Hands pocketed, Dad stands off a ways staring up the hill toward the graveyard, his back toward us, the grim black coat making him look like a pallbearer.
“Whatever it is you wanted us to see, I think we’ve seen it,” I say, louder than I have to. “As for why”
When he turns toward us, moonglow illuminates the harsh lines carved on his face. His breath ghosts before him.
“They’re buried up yonder, you know,” he whispers.
I absorb the word that would be a little odd coming from any over-sixty man’s mouth but is incredible coming from his. I try to keep my eyes and face as empty as his.
Does he want me to feel something so that he doesn’t have to? Sorry, Dad, I never knew your mother: she was dead before I was born. But even after the roller-coaster drive on the road from hell, after snakes and now revelation, I soften in spite of myself. I’m almost ready to say something pastoral when his thin lips curl into the tiniest hint of smile.
When I glance at Murphy, he looks down. The man knewknew and didn’t tell me. What now? Am I supposed to ask questions? Hey, Dad, did growing up in a snake-handling church lead straight to rock and roll? Looking back at my father, I see the glimmer of grin is gone. He’s back to hollow-eyed and sunken-cheeked. A great weariness has settled onto my shoulders like an oil-black buzzard. I want to be gone from this place. I’ve seen one too many cemeteries in the last few years.
“I’m ready, if y’all are,” I say.
He strides forward to stand so close I can smell him, musty as an attic. When he whispers again, I feel his breath, though his eyes are shadowed. “You can’t forget, though you try.”
I turn so quickly, I nearly stumble. There’s nothing but the sound of our shoes crunching gravel as we descend the hill. The moon has been completely eaten by clouds; I smell the snow that should arrive by morning.
The December night is black as Beelzebub’s basement beyond the foggy glass of Murphy’s ’85 Cadillac, and it has begun to rain. I can barely make out occasional clapboard houses, some lit with Christmas decorations, far below in the valley.
God’s country. Yeh, right. Earlier tonight, we left the lights of the Capitol far behind, passing chemical plants, lights a-blazing, smokestacks belching. What I mostly look at now is the backs of heads, Murphy’s mostly bald but Dad’s still as full as it was when he sang on the mall in Washington for MLK.
I am surprised, sitting in the backseat again, to find my head not reeling from all the curves. But my fury has returned, and it cuts through all other sensory data. Hate burns clean. It focuses the mind lik a white-hot brand, like orgasm, like live rock when the band is on. Not rote and mechanical posturing but the real thingnot play-acting but ritual. Eating the body, not the host.
Or stroking the serpent.
I am grateful for the silence in the too-warm carand, surprisingly, for the feeling of letting go. Maybe it has something to do with the mess I left behind at Suffering Christ Church of Holy Martyrs. The deacons at Holy Mart have frowned on their pastor’s wifelessness for the past year (they shudder at the very hint of the D word). And when my soon-to-be-ex-wife’s face appears before me in all her pale beauty, I close my eyes tight.
A nurse had found me making pastoral rounds on the oncology ward that late March afternoon and quietly whispered, “Your wife’s been admitted.”
Doctor Peters was waiting in the hall. “Congratulations, Reverend. You’re a father.”
I shook my head. “But she’s not due till . . .”
“Your neighbor brought her in. Come see.”
When we reached NICU, he pointed out my daughter’s tiny body behind the glass in the isolette beside the other preemies, all three pounds of her.
“All those wires and tubes . . .”
“The incubator, plus she’s on a ventilator for now. It won’t be easy, Reverend, but we have lots of things we can do that we couldn’t five years ago.”
And as he began his litany, I began to prayfor her, for me, for us. Was my child’s risky entry into the world my fault for not wanting her more?
In the end, medical devices and procedures weren’t enough. Without an immune system, Catherine’s cold became pneumonia. Mim, pale and weak from the Caesarian, was in NICU with her when our daughter breathed her last. The attending nurse said she was worried Mim’s breath would fail, so loud were her sobs.
I hear them in dreams, though I wasn’t there. In what I could’ve construed as God’s biggest joke on me yet, Catherine passed away on Easter Sunday, and I stood in the pulpit preaching while my wife watched our daughter’s breath slow, then stop. Biggest day of the year for a preacher, I’d said the night before when I visited Mim, exhausted from worry and all the blood she’d lost. The congregation would be crushed if I had to get a sub, I said. My sermon was woven around poetry readings and special music from the choirweeks of practice. My trump (though I never spoke it aloud): God will save our child if I do His bidding. Magicalnot Christlythinking.
So I did the gigjust as Dad would’ve. I might’ve left drink behind when I joined AA, but I was still drunk. My rock and roll days in flames and tatters, I’d be Graham, King and Billy Sunday rolled into one. My baby girl died without her father present.
After the funeral, we never mentioned her again, and taught others not to. I’d been reading my dad’s mind since I was born; my wife’s averted eyes, tight mouth and turnings-away were later chapters from the same book. We never had sex again. How could we, after the giddy joy of creating a child? She knew that, with my daughter barely clinging to life, I’d chosen my work. Now it’s been six years. And eight months.
Grief broke open the floodgates, and I eventually wrote Dad, telling him everything: my fear of fatherhood, my rage at having it taken away; the loss of sex, then my wife. But my daughter’s death came between his father’s death and his first heart attack. He had his own mortality to deal with. He never wrote back. Since I simply could not bear the knowledge that my father didn’t say a word about my loss, I decided he never received it, that Murphy must’ve taken one look at the return address and said Boss doesn’t need bad news. While taking Step Nine with my sponsor, I “forgave” him.
I lapse into a stupor as Murphy’s lead foot flings us down mountains, inches from guardrails, one hand off the steering wheel gripping his ubiquitous cigarette. The moon re-emerges, and I glimpse the gleaming Kanawha River. I am determined for once in my faithless life to truly put myself into the Lord’s hands. Within moments, I quit shakingwhether grace or simply the lack of anything else left to lose, I have no idea. I try praying, with no luck, as usual. For the time being, at least, Purgatory seems to be where I belong.
And then, as if reading my mind, and ever-ready to mock me, Dad is singing, his voice curving around a syncopated melody at once new and old as the stars. It’s Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” and like that, I’m shot back in time. A song synonymous with sweat-slick summer nights locked in hot, beery embrace on some country back road, in garbage-strewn alley or spidery basement (even once in a church attic). Yet sweetly religious, too, like so many pop songs written and sung by former choir girls and boys: Aretha, Gladys, Marvin, Sam. Eyes closed to better take in this naked rendering of a song whose power I’d forgottenonly one song of a million sung to bass and drums, played in bar and brothel, high school gym, on radios of parked cars, forever able to bring me to my knees. Snakes and sex, rock and gospel, guilt and grace.
Dad fills the car with this altar call for the lustful and the lost. Murphy, head wreathed in smoke, casts dark glances at Dad as if the patient might expire before he can get him to ER. And though I want to join my father, link my voice to his, I stay silent. Godand Dadsing some songs only once.
Lord, how I miss the stage sometimes. Miss it in my loins, my hands; feel the drought its absence leaves by the dryness of my tongue, the curl of my right hand’s fretting fingers, my pounding pulse greedy to release. Miss pouring gasoline onto the roaring fire. Suddenly I remember what I still carry in the inside breast pocket of this suit my wife made me buy.
Reaching into my pocket, I touch smooth, warm metal and relax. The Lee Oskar Major Diatonic harmonica I played on October 5, 1988, at Shakey’s in Athens, Ohio: the last note I’d blown in public. I see the place in rock noir: misted in bar smoke, lead guitar man Danny Kirchner and I swap endless licks on the final song Subterfuge played together: “Last Gasp of Weary Foes.” It had to endthe night, the band, our dreamand it did, the way most rockers’ dreams do, not with a bang but a whisper. But some nights we had it, and when we did, we gave it back.
I shake my head vigorously to exorcise these devils. I haven’t touched fret nor string in thirteen years, though my Fender, Gibson and a Gretsch Country Gentleman are buried below Christmas decorations in the parsonage attic.
The song has ended. I smile, looking at the back of my dad’s head, watching Murphy sneak glances as if at his mail-order bride just off the train, both of us waiting for another song to top that last one (Dad could do it, if anyone could). It is the endless waiting that comes at that Mother of all Concerts, that nerve-torturing ache for the song that, if it comes, on the right night, at the right moment, might save you or damn you but will leave you as bloody and raw as the night you were born. But by the time we see the towers of DuPont Chemical rising through the sulfurous steam across the moon-gleaming Kanawha, I know that it won’t come tonight, if it ever comes at all.
I drop the harp back into my breast pocket and feel its tiny weight against my heart.