Religion and the Ridiculous

Article excerpt

A CRITIC ONCE called Clyde Edgerton the "love child of Dave Barry and Flannery O'Connor"--a reflection of the fact that his novels are both dark and funny. His nine novels include Raney, Walking Across Egypt, The Floatplane Notebooks, Killer Diller and, most recently, The Bible Salesman, about a young man who has never read the Bible but is selling it door to door. Edgerton teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

In a recent interview, you spoke about being compelled to go back to church after many years away from it. What compelled you? Did your return disappoint or surprise you?

I love the old hymns, and my wife and I wanted a place for our children to systematically receive moral teachings to underpin daily life. Not that we didn't need the same.

My return to church has not disappointed me because we found a Baptist church [Winter Park Baptist in Wilmington, North Carolina] whose minister [Eric Porteffield] stresses love of neighbor and racial reconciliation. He doesn't stress eternal damnation or eternal bliss.

Are there aspects of your religious heritage [Southern Baptist and fundamentalist] that you admire and hold on to?

I've come to appreciate Bible narrative. What great stories of wrestling, beheading, brain-dashing, compassion, loyalty, service, lost love.

I think that I almost unconsciously hold on to the fact that as a child in my church I felt protected, felt the warmth of people older than me. They were like aunts and uncles in many ways, even though I was afraid of the anger and loudness in many of the sermons. I felt protected from the anger of God by the warmth of the adults. How could they have lived long lives with the same God that some of my preachers said was out to get me? I allowed a tip of the balance toward the warmth of old people and never felt too uncomfortable in church until I got old enough to think for myself.

In your books there is often a remarkable interplay between the religious and the ridiculous.

There seems to be such an interplay between the ridiculous and most facets of our lives: family life, politics, social norms, education. Religion doesn't get off the hook in real life so it shouldn't in fiction. Because religion was one of the most serious aspects of my early life and because I believe that humor is one of the human stays against chaos, I end up mixing humor and religion.

What is happening now in southern fiction?

Fiction writers are still dealing with that species of animal called human in a hot place where there's plenty of reactionary fundamentalism and family loyalty and a history of living close to the land, along with a poverty that often finds little hope in the promise of America.

You once said, "Because I was born in the South, I'm a southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the

Central Plains, I would be just a human being." Do we make too much of southern culture generally or of southern literature in particular?

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Maybe we do make too much of it--because it's often loud and in the case of good fiction, accurate. …