Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $15
Gina Webb / For the AJC
Noir meets Holy Roller in T.J. Forrester’s fast-paced, hard-boiled debut novel, the story of a young carnival worker whose brush with religious greatness lands him in the biggest limbo of all: a 6-by-10 on death row in Florida, where he’s awaiting execution.
Not for tax fraud or sexual misconduct, but for murder.
Flashback to 1997: Born-overnight-but-not-again, Vernon Oliver makes a living as a slacker stagehand for a two-bit traveling tent show where he learns the tricks of the trade — including how to usher the sick far from the stage so the trained actors can be healed. Despite his high I.Q. and off-the-chart SAT scores, 20-year-old Vernon is content with the job, saving up for the day he and his girlfriend, Rickie, can buy the Harley he wants and a beach house for the two of them.
Until the night his glamorous boss taps Vernon for a shot at greatness: “Televangelism, ” she says. “You have the looks. You have the charisma. The rest we’ll teach you.”
A tragedy in Vernon’s past has cured him of faith, but with a talent for fast-talking — “I could quote enough Nietzsche to bore someone into a coma, solve mathematical problems so beautiful they’d make Pythagoras cry”— and his dreams of easy money, he’s perfect for the job he claims to despise, as coolly manipulative as the sexy, shrewd Miriam, owner of the organization he’ll work for: Miracles, Inc.
No one but a champion cynic could play the role Vernon invents: the “Biker Preacher, ” roaring into the arena dressed in a biker T-shirt and motorcycle boots astride his coal-black Harley — Jim Morrison channeling Jerry Falwell — a macho, coked-up Holy Roller who makes a fortune off the afflicted while laughing up his sleeve.
That was years ago. When we first meet Vernon in 2007, 11 years into his life sentence, he sits in a solitary cell, the monotony broken by visits from his lawyer, letters from his steadfast fans, a view of the cemetery outside his window, and the screams of the condemned as they’re dragged past his cell. With plenty of time to ponder life and death and what’s beyond the grave, he’s no longer the brash know-it-all who thought anyone hoping for a miracle was a fool.
Now, he’s the one who needs a miracle.
But when Vernon’s lawyer suggests he get the ball rolling by writing a tell-all about his fall from grace, the former master of smoke and mirrors rebels against his lawyer’s injunction to “create sympathy in the reader” by sentimentalizing his past.
Instead, he writes a matter-of-fact, gritty account of his life, unceremoniously exposing the masterminds, the seminary-trained frauds and the backstage hucksterism that make up the world of Pentecostal televangelism — the one whose ranks he joined so unquestioningly back in the days when he “didn’t want morals to get in the way.”
Forrester deftly weaves Vernon’s past into his present, alternating between his increasingly grim hours in prison and the story that explains how he got there. At the heart of it all is the Rosebud of Vernon’s childhood: his beloved sister, Lucy, who died at age 7 despite the incessant prayers he offered up in her behalf. A thorny relationship involving the mysterious, psychotic Rickie and his boss-turned-mother-in-law heightens the suspense. As Vernon’s execution date closes in, his tough-guy exterior shows signs of cracking, and the one promise he’s sworn he’ll never break could be his only way out.
Throughout “Miracles, Inc.” Forrester lampoons the foundations of belief and how its exploitation plays out in matters of hope and faith. But he also plays a sly shell game, as in this passage where Vernon complains that the profiteering queen of Miracles, Inc. insists on building far too many free clinics and schools in Africa:
“I thought we’d gone overboard with charity work, that one or two clinics were enough of a smokescreen, but Miriam continued to spend more and more, claiming it was good business. She didn’t fool me; my mother-in-law liked helping the less fortunate. Sometimes, I wondered if that hadn’t been her motivation all along.”
It’s possible Vernon may have possessed a genuine flair for healing due to his burning sense of loss after Lucy’s death, or that his devoted fans may have been blind to his tricks — or both. Rickie could have had the “miserable childhood” Vernon assigns her, but it looks pretty decent compared to the daughter of one of his prison guards, or his own sister, both of whom suffered and died before they were out of elementary school.
“Miracles, Inc.” would be a fairly straightforward run — comic, occasionally touching, gleefully grotesque — if not for these hints of irony and ambivalence Forrester drops at every turn that leave us, in the end, wondering who and what to believe.