San Antonio Express-News review

June 23, 2002 

East Texas life more complex with deeper look

By John Hammond
Special to the Express-News

Christopher Cook’s collection of short stories explores the lives of ordinary people in the fictional East Texas town of Bethlehem. As the town name and story titles suggest, Cook’s themes concern his characters’ religious beliefs and habits, which are frequently unflattering.

Among his introductory quotes which set the tone are: Paul the Apostle, “We are fools for Christ’s sake”; and Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

In one story, a successful car dealer wants to retire, so he invites his daughter, just returned from missionary work in Africa, to learn the business and eventually take it over. However, he is a little concerned that she is a member of the town’s “holy roller” congregation, who speak in tongues and behave to his mind in an unseemly way, rubbing elbows with blacks and the poor.

Problems begin when she starts to operate what in his words is a “dirty business,” the way she believes Jesus would run a car dealership: eliminating tricky sales gimmicks that escalate the price and also financing cars for people who normally couldn’t afford a new vehicle.

“Have you ever wondered why we sell cars at discount to people with money and demand maximum price from folks who slave for every penny they earn?” she asks her father, who sees in this philosophy a serious threat to the unwritten business and social rules of his town.

“Soldiers for the Lord” captures a 6-year-old girl’s perspective of her aunt and uncle at work at a gun and knife show. She watches as they interact with camouflage-clad men and boys purchasing weapons, cursing the intrusive government laws, and picking up bumper stickers that say things such as “Jesus Supports the NRA.”

Her aunt and uncle try to play match-maker for the girl’s widowed mother by arranging a relationship with a man at the show. Cook chillingly contrasts their stupidity with the girl’s awareness of the man’s suspicious behavior, realizing he may be the one who killed her father. All the while, his son (her possible future brother) teasingly thrusts a knife at her as she looks into his cold, flat eyes.

Cook’s writing can occasionally verge on stereotyping the rural bumpkin, but more often he depicts humane and generous people who find themselves surrounded by the injustices and cruelty one could find anywhere. We see this in “Star Man,” the name a waitress gave her mentally retarded son born on Christmas Day. An oil rig worker who meets them working in a diner one Christmas sees in the boy someone who will never understand the meaning of Christianity yet essentially embodies the innocent Christ child.

There are a few disappointments in this volume, especially when Cook takes aim at easy targets, but he proves himself a perceptive, reliable storyteller who knows how to express the depth and complexity of people’s lives.



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