Days of Little Texas took me by surprise. I've never read anything by the author, R.A. Nelson, and didn't know anything about the book, but wow! It's one of those where the audiobook is likely better than the book read to myself, where the voice in my head would be mine -- utterly inauthentic and a little ordinary. This book needs a reader who can provide some serious local flavor, and with narrator Luke Daniels, the ghost story involving Little Texas just takes off.
Ronald Earl Pettway performed his first healing when he was 10 years old. He travelled a Southern small town revival circuit with the elderly (and former child) evangelist Sugar Tom since his mother died in a meth-house fire along with her latest boyfriend and he was taken in by his great aunt Miss Wanda Joy. Rounding out this entourage is an old black man -- who wears his thrice-great grandfather's slave tag around his neck -- named Certain Certain (and I'm sure there was an explanation for this in the book, but it is lost in the mists of hours of listening). When Certain Certain was struck by lightning, Ronald Earl laid on his hands and brought him back to life. Little Texas and the Church of the Hand -- managed with the iron hand of Miss Wanda Joy -- were born.
Six years later, Ronald Earl is having doubts. Not doubts of faith, but doubts of his abilities. He dreams about naked girls and has had a few wet dreams, yet is understandably reluctant to mention these to Miss Wanda Joy. Certain Certain seems to understand and offers general words of support. But Ronald Earl is restless -- "The devil is standing over me." At a healing service in Alabama he lays hands on a very sick girl named Lucy. Her parents carry her away, declaring her cured, but Ronald Earl isn't as certain. Lucy's face first appears on the girl in his dreams, and later he sees and talks with her ... ghost? At the next stop on their circuit, he finds himself unable to preach. To get Little Texas back on track, Miss Wanda Joy proposes a huge revival meeting at the flooded ruins of the Alabama plantation called Vanderloo. At the last revival held at Vanderloo, the devil appeared, and the preacher was never seen again.
In the days (and nights) leading up to the revival, Lucy continues to haunt Ronald Earl -- who is simultaneously terrified and comforted by her presence. Something is very wrong at Vanderloo plantation, and Little Texas is going to every ounce of faith he has to survive this particular meeting.
So, what is this book? A ghost story, Christian fiction, bildungsroman? It's all three. What it thankfully isn't is a book that mocks evangelicals. Little Texas believes that the Holy Spirit is using him to heal others and no one in the Church of the Hand is serving Mammon (well, maybe Miss Wanda Joy a little, but only for the means to serve God and Little Texas). Ronald Earl knows that his deep faith is required in order to defeat the devil.
For a non-believer, I was sucked right into this book. I think the narrator got me at Little Texas' first sermon: "The Lord is a-coming, ah! He's a house afire, ah! He's a freight train, ah! He's a wrecking ball, ah!" Daniels' voice gets deeper and more musical and he starts reading with rhythm. Each "ah!" pops out and sweeps Daniels into the next phrase. I was practically standing up and shouting myself (well, not really ... but I was definitely smiling in acknowledgement of the excitement the narration generates). Then, when the revival is over and we're back hearing from Ronald Earl, it's a younger voice -- (much) less confident, almost innocent.
All the characters here are unique and vivid. Everyone speaks with Southern-tinged inflections, but no one sounds stupid. Certain Certain speaks with a deep, craggy-edged growl (the author says his voice is "full of creek gravel") that is unlike any other character. He doesn't sound "black" to me, but I appreciate the narrator's attempt to make him different. Daniels was completely consistent with all his character voices. There is a scene early on in the novel when the four evangelists are in an IHOP, being waited on by an Afghani named Azeem. The conversation is flying quickly around and Daniels keeps track of everyone. It was terrific listening.
Nelson's two other novels sound equally fascinating/edgy. Yikes! He's a rocket scientist in his day job!