Book Review : Cody Goodfellow & J. David Osborne - The Snake Handler (2017)
“Heaven needs Hell. And Man needs a scapegoat for all the lies he tells himself.”
Faith is a funny thing. It survived industrial, scientific a technological revolutions and developed new identities in order to remain pertinent in today’s society. People’s don’t just worship religious icons anymore. They worship whoever and whatever they need to worship: pop stars, successful entrepreneurs, new age gurus, sports teams, etc. Because the need to believe in something more than what you have will never die. It’s part of human nature. Cody Goodfellow & J. David Osborne’s 2017 novel The Snake Handler explores that primary impulse and the business that it created. And it has lots of snakes in it. An uncomfortable amount.
The Snake Handler tells the story of Clyde Hillburn, one of these old school revival ministers who regularly survived snake bites while preaching to demonstrate the power of Christian faith and recruit followers. It opens with Clyde getting bit by a venomous rattlesnake hidden in a mailbox, which is not an unfortunate accident. The reverend has been prospering from people’s need to believe… and from their drug addiction for many years. Facing his own impending death, Clyde will try to use the hours he has left in order to make things right. Because he has nothing left to lose except eternal life.
I know The Snake Handler is dedicated to Harry Crews (an obvious reference to A Feat of Snakes), but there’s a lot of Jim Thompson in it. A deviant protagonist, a southern town under his spell and violent local politics will remind you of novels like Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me. It’s one way you can read it. From a nuts and bolts standpoint, The Snake Handler is a rock solid hardboiled thriller with themes of virtue, redemption and faith. But there’ so much more to it. If you decide to take Clyde Hillburn’s visions an speeches for cash, The Snake Handler reveals a new, mystical layer that’s way more fun.
“I go on these sites, look, here’s fucking CNN, and they’re talking about Pepe and they’re talking about the ‘alt-right’ and all this shit. You know what this shit was, before Trump was president? It was called ‘the fucking internet’. It’s always been there.”
There are snakes everywhere in this book. Both real and metaphorical, which are an important element to Clyde Hillburn’s philosophy and worldview. Despite being a peddler of poison himself (drug), the reverend sees his high level of tolerance to it as proof that he’s the good guy. That he’s equipped to fend off literal and metaphorical snakes. The metaphorical ones here being low lives and criminals. When he’s bit by the rattlesnake, reverend Hillburn’s beliefs start affecting his surrounding. He starts acting on faith because he has nothing else left, which translates into direct actions and start transforming things.
In The Snake Handler, faith and personal beliefs are all-powerful and transformative. They supersede every aspect of Earthly existence. Now, that’s a cool-ass, original way to design a thriller without resorting to supernatural if I ever seen one.
There’s two ways you can read The Snake Handler. Either as Jim Thompson-like thriller or as the mystical journey to redemption of a doomed man. The way it’ll reveal itself depends on you and what you choose to see through Clyde Hillburn’s eyes. But it was meant to have multiple layers and unexpected depth. The Snake Handler presents itself to be straightforward, but it is full of twists, turns and details which alter and enrich the stakes and the scope of Hillburn’s journey. If small-town, southern noir is nothing new, Cody Goodfellow and J. David Osborne’s ideas on the power of faith and inner Truth absolutely are.