Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Escape from the Promised Land

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, personal growth

On page one, line one, word one, Diane Wilson's prose takes off running, and keeps running headlong for 210 pages. Better run to keep up, or she'll get done before you do, and you'll end up wondering where you are and how you got there. I don't rightly know how that works, but it does. Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I quite Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus is much like a Pentecostal gathering (I wouldn't use the term "service" since a Baptist or Methodist might think I mean something familiar): full blast, in-your-face, we'll be done when the Holy Ghost gets done…yet it is also a story of growing up in a small shrimping town in coastal Texas, a rather eccentric girl amid relatives and townsfolk who range from eccentric to downright looney.

Two kinds of people naturally gravitate to independent Pentecostal churches: the ones who need a fix of high-adrenaline-charged emotion on a regular basis, and the mental masochists who just don't feel right without a regular scolding by an overblown preacher. Pentecostal Christianity is a lot like flying fighter jets. You fly a dozen missions that are boring as beans, and come back from the next one having sweated a gallon or two. One of my favorite experiences was walking in on a meeting that, so I was told later, turned into "a real gully-washer". You just weren't ready to go home until the preacher, a man with a style like this pic, had given you a bit of face time that left your eyeballs bruised.

The bulk of the story occurred just before and after Diane, AKA Silver, turned ten years old. It was like growing up in a whirlwind. I don't know just when the author fulfilled the book's title's promise, but I suppose it has to do with becoming possessed by a demon who takes the name Anthony Perkins. As far as we know, she still is.

A shrimping town revolves around the shrimpers and their catch (Image copyright Mike Keegin). The book's story also revolves around a year-long (or more) feud between Silver's grandfather Chief and an overly aggressive game warden. The author seems to have been the kid who was easiest to cajole or coerce into helping "head" the shrimp with her Dad, Billy. We get about as much of shrimping lore as we do church stories. Billy has his own run-ins with the warden, but it is Chief that brings Silver along on a couple of occasions in attempts to retrieve another son's gun that the warden seems to have stolen after murdering the man…an affair the local sheriff declines to investigate.

The case doesn't break open until a man shows up who is a snake handler. He makes a sufficiently memorable entrance by bringing a box of rattlers, moccasins and coral snakes to church with him. Kicked out by an anti-snake evangelist, he starts a "handling" church in an abandoned boat shed. It turns out he is also the game warden's brother.

I dunno, with all that going on, I'd probably decide to take a back seat to Anthony Perkins myself. The experience seems to have stood the author in good stead. In an earlier book, An Unreasonable Woman, she chronicles her nearly single-handed activism to end horrific polluting of the area by a chemical company. She is Erin Brockovich, squared. If you've been taught about a Jesus who isn't averse to "machine gun" tactics, it stands to reason…

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