In this withering satire, a Harley Davidson-riding con man makes millions as the head of a faith-healing ministry, until he gets his comeuppance.
Miracles, Inc. by T.J. Forrester, Simon & Schuster, $15.00
“You can write bad characters and still have people connect to them,” says T. J. Forrester. Let's hope so, since there isn’t a single honest person in his debut novel, Miracles, Inc. Topping the list of ne’er-do-wells is the protagonist, Vernon Oliver, a charismatic, faux evangelist who convinces believers to sign over their life savings to him by pretending to work miracles. When pondering the immorality of his actions, Oliver muses, “I didn't want morals to get in the way…If my future employment included fooling a few million people into giving up their paychecks, so be it. We were all fools. Some more than others.”
Oliver learns the art of faking miracles at a “Bible Camp” in Florida’s Everglades. It’s more like a boot camp for aspiring grifters. The teacher, Alton Pierce, is a former televangelist and a master of the con. Pierce teaches Oliver how to dress, how to stand and even how to speak, learning, for instance, that “God” should be pronounced with two syllables with the stress on the first: “GA-odd.” Also attending camp are actors who will later pose as severely ill congregants to serve as Oliver’s shills once he takes his act on the road. They pretend to be blind, palsied, paralyzed. At group events such as Paraplegic Class and Blind Man Class, the con artists perfect their routines. When discussing how to sell a cancer miracle, Oliver offers a creative suggestion for faking a decaying smell: “You rub the meat on your jacket, then you take the jacket off and leave it onstage. After you get healed you walk among the congregation smell-free. It’s an association game. Sick people smell like death, healed people don’t.”
Readers are able to tolerate Oliver’s despicable nature since he begins the story, on page one, sitting in prison—on death row. The book follows two story lines: one progressing toward his execution date and the other following his reminiscences as he pens a memoir about his rise to power in the faith-healing world. We watch him swindle the masses with the smug satisfaction of knowing that his demise is imminent.
Forrester says that he did extensive research on death row, which make the book’s details on prison life both accurate and visceral. Still, he decided to place Oliver in a fictional penitentiary. “The death row prison in Florida is actually in Starke,” he says. “I didn’t set it in Starke because I felt I would have to adhere to whatever facts people could Google about Starke. That gave me a lot more freedom to be looser with the facts."
As the story unfolds, a strange thing happens: we discover there actually is some good in Oliver, particularly when it comes to his relationship with his wife, Rickie. “At its heart, this really is a love story,” says Forrester, who lives in Hopewell. “Even though Vernon is not a nice guy, he’s got some decent qualities. He loves and is loyal to Rickie, which is probably the reason readers can still care what happens to him.” Rickie loves him back, but hers is more conditional. She doesn’t mind him conning others, but when she thinks that he is having an affair, she throws his clothes out on the lawn and burns them.
Forrester treads a thin line between satire and sacrilege, populating his book with gloriously rotten characters who cheat, lie and blaspheme, but he makes sure not to belittle religion itself. “Yeah, I’ve had flak from the religious community,” he says. “Not organized flak, but I’ve had some individuals look at me cross-eyed. They think my book is a condemnation of the Pentecostal religion. It’s not. It’s maybe a condemnation of the scammers in the Pentecostal religion…ministers on television like Oral Roberts telling people God was going to ‘take him up’ if they didn’t give him millions of dollars for whatever building he was erecting.”
The author says that he did try to create a carnival-like atmosphere for the sermons. This, too, came from experience. “I was in Damascus, Virginia during the summer when a Pentecostal carnival came through,” he says. “This ride that was the centerpiece of the carnival had a pole in the middle of it and arms that branched out horizontally about twelve feet high with cables that came down and had chairs attached to them. People sat in them and the ride spun them around in a circle. The faster they spun, the more they rose in the air. Meanwhile, a song was playing with a refrain that said, ‘Kick booty for Jesus.’ I kid you not! And whenever it came on, the people were supposed to kick in unison, which enabled them to ride higher in the air. I saw it as a metaphor for the religious being taken for a ride, and that’s basically the germ of an idea that started this novel.”
Forrester is himself the son of a preacher, though his father was nothing like Oliver. Forrester, on the other hand, shares some similarities with his lead character. For starters, they are both adventurous. While Oliver seeks thrills driving recklessly on his motorcycle, Forrester gets his kicks hiking incredibly long distances. He’s trekked the full length of the Appalachian Trail—2,181 miles—three times. He is now attempting to hike from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to New York City and is writing about his adventures on his blog—TJForrester.com/blog. If all goes well, he expects to arrive sometime in mid-August.
“There’s a bit of me in all of my characters,” Forrester admits. “You can’t help that when you write fiction.” He pauses and a devilish lilt enters his voice. “Even the bad ones.”