Raymond L. Atkins,
The Front Porch Prophet
(Medallion Press, 2008)

Down South where I grew up, if a group of three or more people got together anywhere for any reason, they'd start telling stories. It was and still is a tradition. It's a way of staying bonded, maintaining membership in the human community, and it can also be a friendly form of competition.

Rome, Georgia, novelist Raymond L. Atkins shows every sign of growing up in the tradition and loving it. Reading The Front Porch Prophet is like gathering in the diner for breakfast with an old friend who loves nothing more than an appreciative chuckle as he spins lies and tall tales. He has constructed a loose plot to unify the novel, but his heart is in the stories he tells about a warped group of characters from Cherokee County, Ga.

A.J. Longstreet, the central and most together character in the book, discovers that his lifelong friend, the never any good Eugene Purdue, local bootlegger and marijuana dealer, is dying of pancreatic cancer. Eugene tries to make A.J. promise that when the time comes A.J. will mercy-kill him. As far as plot goes, that's pretty much it. Eugene moves toward death, A.J. moves toward a decision.

The real story is what happens on the periphery of the plot. It seems Cherokee County is filled with the most bizarre people you can imagine. Slim Neal, the trigger-happy cop with the brain of a squirrel, spends the book trying to solve the long-ago theft of a school bus -- A.J. and Eugene stole it as a prank back when they were in high school and could never find a way to return it -- while Wormy, a helicopter pilot who managed to drop the front porch of a house on Estelle Chastain's dog and the rest of the house in the highway where Slim Neal's patrol car collided with it -- is afraid to fly again and generally too drunk to, anyway. People like these are all over this book and the author delights in just raring back and letting go with a good story about them.

It is, like Eudora Welty's Losing Battles, a book of tall tales about the members of a small community. Most of the stories are hilarious, making this the funniest book centering on the inevitable death of one of the central characters you will read in a long time. Yes, it's a book about death, but it's also about life.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

11 October 2008

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