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Son of a Preacher Man

Ever since my first novel, Zanesville, I've considered myself a kind of religious writer. I said a "kind of religious writer."

Maybe it's because I was baptized in a water hazard of the Chabot Golf Course in the Oakland hillsI was baptized in a water hazard of the Chabot Golf Course in the Oakland hills. My father was a minister who liked golf. One of the great crises of faith he experienced was when he was playing a round by himself very early one morning — no one else in sight — and he hit a hole in one.

Boy, did that irk him. This great, once in a lifetime achievement, and no one there to see it, to share it. Who would believe him? That got his goat big time. He turned it into a religious issue for Sunday. His title was "Your Whole in One," but the family called it "The Sermon on the Green." It raised the question of whether or not triumphs and good deeds have to be witnessed to be real and true. Doesn't God see everything?

This sparked a string of sermons with golfing related metaphors as their themes. He liked those very much. Along with trout fishing. Outside of golf and fishing, I don't actually think he was a very religious man deep down. He was a spiritual man who liked to sing old folk songs and always drove with his left arm out the window, so that it was forever tan relative to his right.

He'd been something of an accidental hero in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. (Skiing was his other great passion.) He came back with a Purple Heart and worked at a storefront church in Harlem before finishing college on the G.I. Bill and enrolling in Divinity School.

I tell you this because many people who know me feel my credentials in the publican-and-sinner realm are so solid, they wonder what right I have to write about matters of religion and faith. My answer is that it was the family business. It actually runs in the family. My great grandfather was one of the leading Baptist evangelists of his day and was the locomotive force behind the Chapel Railcars that toured America.

He became famous for a sermon called "Shun the Hot Green Slime of Lust" (which I think was a very forward looking title). This didn't stop him from fathering 13 children. I've read his memoir, and there's no question he was an out-and-out skirt chaser, with a special fondness for big-bottomed womenthere's no question he was an out-and-out skirt chaser, with a special fondness for big-bottomed women (which apparently also runs in the family).

I've channeled some of this for Reverend America.

My mother was the choir director at my father's church. She was the lead soprano as well, and would usually rehearse with an accompanist. But she can still play pretty well herself, and my first memories are of being down on the floor with toys, watching her kick off these brown and white pumps she often wore and then working the pedals barefoot. Music, sermons, stained glass. Some of my earliest realities.

My old man died a tragic, pathetic death as a bloated alcoholic following a stroke. The mystery of his terminal decline haunts me still.

But here's the thing.

No one can take away the fact that in his good times he could make a campfire story seem like what Kerouac called a Ceremony at the Heart of the World Night. As dubious as he was about some aspects of the Christian program, he could tune the living hell out of an Easter Sermon.

I still hear him singing in the car with me, when I'm alone and burning out across the desert where I live now. I hear my mother singing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" in time with the dust motes streaming through our living room window long ago.

I wrote that music into Reverend America by heart. You can't get to it unless you've been through it.

I've had some hipster liberals give me a hard time for talking about Christianity — but I don't give a good God damn. God bless my wily great grandfather who chased enough skirt to make me possible. I'm proud of the whole drunken, fornicating, Bible-thumping trout stream of faith that brought me here.

In my heart, I know that my dad really did hit that hole in one.

÷ ÷ ÷

Kris Saknussemm, who Kirkus Reviews called "exuberantly weird," is the author of three acclaimed novels, a short story collection, and a collection of visual art. His latest novel is Reverend America

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Reverend America Used Trade Paper $8.50
  2. Zanesville
    New Trade Paper $14.95

Kris Saknussemm is the author of Reverend America

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