The faith-healing racket dominates this dark entertainment, a vibrant first novel that’s also driven by a one-man war against God and the power of unconditional love.
Vernon Oliver was born poor in a mobile home in Indiana. His beloved sister Lucy suffered from a painful blood disorder. Along with his righteous Baptist parents, he prayed hard for her recovery. He also promised her a mercy killing, but couldn’t steel himself to do it. Lucy died. God had failed them; Vernon had failed her. Soon after, the Tabernacle Carnival comes to town, promising miracles to the afflicted. The 17-year-old Vernon falls in love with Rickie, one of its employees, and joins the show. Rickie demands loyalty, and Vernon is happy to oblige; he will not fail again. Eventually, handsome, charismatic Vernon catches the eye of Miriam, the mysterious owner, still beautiful in middle age. She decides to groom him for prime time. At Bible Camp in the Everglades, Vernon learns how to manipulate an audience into giving money. Working with him are actors who will be “cured.” Vernon needs no encouragement to take the Lord’s name in vain, not after the Lucy business. His first televangelist gig, in Chicago, is a smash; coked up, he roars into the gathering on his Harley, and the legend of the Biker Preacher is born. Vernon is a swindler, sure, but he makes an appealing anti-hero, because of his candor (“Hope. I’ve been selling that lie for years”) and his devotion to Rickie. And Forrester has more to offer than pseudo-religious shenanigans. There’s a major mystery here. We first meet Vernon on death row, and prison scenes alternate with Vernon’s ascent to big-bucks stardom. What’s he doing there? The answer is a long time coming. Meanwhile, Forrester beguiles us with his story of unhappy childhoods (Rickie’s is a nightmare), blackmail and a double murder.
Showing the push-the-envelope spirit of a Terry Southern, Forrester has the makings of a formidable talent.