Another name has joined Father Tim and the Reverend John Ames in my directory of beloved fictional pastors. Rowdy Slater stands apart from the others (and from most real life pastors, I expect) in two important ways:
1. Neither Fr. Tim nor the Rev. Ames could look out over his congregation and say, “At one time or another, I’ve punched most of them in the face.”
2. Neither answered his call to the ministry in order to avoid jail time.
In Feast for Thieves, Marcus Brotherton has created a work of fiction that kept me turning pages long after I should have turned out the light, while, at the same time, setting forth a prototype for pastoral training and development. From the moment of his first exposure to truth, Rowdy was a conflicted prophet with mixed and often misguided motives. Rising to announce his salvation, but distracted by the smell of bacon, he offends a benevolent preacher and misses out on the free breakfast. Later on, mindful of his responsibility to his daughter, he risks everything to honor an “obligation” to an evil man from his past. Fist-fights and white knuckle journeys at gunpoint move the plot along, but there’s a delightful homeliness to the steady rhythm of Rowdy’s feeling his way into the ministry.
In his pastoral role, Rowdy’s ignorance is refreshing. He lands with both feet in the first chapter of Genesis and, by including directions for field dressing a squirrel, manages to stretch his first sermon to three full minutes. Although green as grass, Rowdy is spared none of the politics of the pastorate. By failing to omit the third verse of “Shall We Gather at the River,” he earns himself an anonymous nasty note (“That is the way we have always done things around here . . .”) and discovers the perennial church music debate. By loving a post-World War II congregation, he is baptized into the “mix and mingle of a world of pain,” and gets shot at for his trouble. He takes pastoral counseling in stride with more homespun wisdom than biblical knowledge (“Well, it’s worth a wait and see.”); and, within days of taking on his position, he launches a successful building program. Rev. Rowdy does systematic theology on the fly, but asks all the right questions (“How did God ever know about losing a son?”). Problem is that by the time trouble from his past comes calling, it’s too late to bail out — Rowdy already cared too much.
Marcus Brotherton has populated Cut Eye, Texas with a cast of characters that both showcase and facilitate Rowdy’s transformation from a drifting and dishonorably discharged former WWII paratrooper to a young man with the heart of a shepherd. There’s Miss Bobbie, the sheriff’s single missionary daughter who had kept the church doors open throughout the war in Rosie the Riveter style; then, there’s her dad, Sheriff Halligan who believes in Rowdy and the town of Cut Eye in equal measure and dreams a future for both. No congregation is complete without its version of Mert, the crusty church secretary, and no Texas town would be believable without its Deuce Gibbons, ringleader of the rabble-rousers. Eventually, nearly the whole town ends up sitting in the pews, from Deputy Roy (who plays “older brother” to Rowdy’s prodigal) and Cut Eye’s shady mayor to the town floozies and ne’er do wells. Then, there’s faithful Goomer who just wants to hook Rowdy up with some reliable transportation.
Whether the stuff of epiphany or imagination, the “lawman beside the river” who invited Rowdy to “find the good meal and eat your fill” got a good thing going for the town of Cut Eye — and for Rowdy. With his feet under the table at the Pine Oak Café and his heart committed to the body of Christ at Cut Eye, Texas, he just may be on his way to “eating the good of the land,” and let us all remember that whenever any of us come to that table, it’s a feast for thieves.
This book was provided by River North Fiction, a division of Moody Publishers, in exchange for my unbiased review.