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In Splendora (1978) Swift compressed both hot air and chilly home-truths within the airborne social sphere of a small Texas town. Here he cuts up hilariously and dresses down the ""amen, amen"" prayer circuit of some Bible-thumping Christians and their silk-jean exploiters, again with outsize originals and a diction that syncopates like a tabernacle piano. . . but this time the underlying tone is deeper, raspier, and sharper. Principia Martindale made her ""decision"" for Jesus at the age of three; she's Hillister Baptist College's most promising freshman and hopes to be a foreign missionary. True, her mother fears that Principia will turn out to be a ""raving fanatic"" like Aunt Wilda: ""I believe in God but I don't believe in going overboard."" But Principia is riding ""the breastplate of righteousness"" when she's chosen to be one of Miss Corinda Cassy's ""Invincibles"" who witness and teach in summer Bible schools. (Wealthy widow Corinda, who drove her husband to his non-accidental death, is the founder of the ""Cowgirls for Christ"" drill team--though sometimes she feels ""God going out the window"" when that blond hunk Larry Wayne, somewhat her junior, creases the counterpane.) And so Principia, ecstatic, arrives in her assigned ghost town of Judson--with small population (a shifting 15), a ruined church, dilapidated hotel, cafÉ, and the Shrine: a screen door on which appears, at sunset, the image of Christ. What is poor Principia to make of this-or of the Shrine impresario, baby-faced ex-seminary student David Applebee? Outraged, frightened but martyr-stubborn, she holes up in the church ruins--open to the sky and clockwork flights of bats (in which Applebee feels a hint of a Holy Spirit), with a garden of food and hidden scorpions. She clings to the raft of Scripture, but Applebee--a more instinctive sort of believer--tries to touch the girl desperately afire with faith. Later, then, at the shrine Principia begins to heal people, miraculously, and has a vision of a Holy City: Corinda and Wayne, scenting out power and money, move in to supply it; Judson's tiny Mexican-Anglo compound is bulldozed; and Principia (whom Applebee begged to leave) is institutionalized as a Queen healer, padded away in a hive of plastic holiness. . . where she'll die. Magically textured with an un-intrusive network of symbols, yet ripe and angry too: a funny/sad, acidulous scrutiny of folks whose arms are too short to box God in--and fresh enough to take some basically familiar material (cf. Elmer Gantry and many, many more) for a bright new ride.

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row