THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Sunday Book Section
January 6, 2002
Piety on parade
Cook slyly examines religious factions and fractions
By BRYAN WOOLLEY / The Dallas Morning News
Screen Door Jesus & Other Stories
Early in the title story of Christopher Cook’s new collection, Screen Door Jesus & Other Stories, the narrator – a 13-year-old Houston boy exiled to his grandparents’ house in a small Southeast Texas town for the summer – describes his new cultural environment:
“Mostly what they did was religion. A church on every block. Soon as one built up to a hundred members they’d fall into a fight, as if there was some critical mass beyond which people couldn’t get along, and they’d form two new churches, like molecular division. Such disputes were said to be doctrinal. But Grandpa observed that if you peeled away that notion and looked underneath, what you’d find was a clash of personalities and American democracy in action.”
All 10 stories in Mr. Cook’s book are set in Bethlehem, a fictional burg in the steamy swamps and forests northeast of Houston. (In his magnificent thriller, Robbers, published last year, a Texas Ranger pursues two serial killers through this same country.) In all the stories, the people of Bethlehem are “doing religion.”
Some are practicing a sanctimonious, hypocritical, claustrophobic Main Street fundamentalist piety, a religious expression of narrow small-town minds and lives. Others are doing the Bible-thumping, weeping-and-moaning, hellfire-and-brimstone, washed-in-the-blood fundamentalism practiced in the little white-frame Pentecostal and Baptist churches that are tucked amongst the trees along the two-lane highways of the Big Thicket and the Piney Woods. It’s a simple and ruthless religion in which Satan is present and angels and demons fly among us. It’s a religion in which the Antichrist and/or Jesus Christ may appear at any moment.
Neither religion allows for subtle shades of knowledge or interpretation or belief. Neither permits tolerance. Every word of the Bible is literal fact or it’s a lie. A sinner is saved and headed for eternal heaven, or he’s damned by his unbelief and bound for eternal torture.
Both faiths are replete with miracles and curses, punishments and dark emotion. Sometimes they’re funny.
In “Screen Door Jesus,” Mother Harper, while watering her gladiolas, beholds the image of Jesus in her screen door. This miracle, which she perceives at first as a blessing, turns into a curse. In “And I Beheld Another Beast,” Veralynn Cunningham surreptitiously has her visiting grandchildren baptized at the Holiness Tabernacle, precipitating a crisis with their father and his new Catholic wife.
In “Star Man,” three oilfield hands who are driving to work on a cold Christmas Eve encounter a strange child and his mother in a roadside Waffle House. In “A Tinkling Cymbal” – a gripping fictional meditation on the Good Samaritan – a righteous and prudent banker refuses a loan requested by a down-and-out fellow church member, with dire consequences. In “Heresies,” one of the funny stories, a couple of Pentecostal security guards eavesdrop on a gathering of liberal Protestant ministers at the John Shelby Boone Ecumenical Retreat Center.
Underlying all 10 of Mr. Cook’s stories is a deep and fearless understanding of the Bible. As in Robbers, he’s a master of setting, characterization, dialogue and narrative. The man knows what he’s doing, and why.