The Front Porch Prophet
By Raymond L. Atkins
I am a sucker for Southern charm. Seriously. When a guy starts talking and has that sweet Southern twang I just swoon. It's irresistible. Gone With The Wind is one of my Top Ten Ever books, largely because Rhett Butler is the ultimate sneaky, hunky Southern gentleman with the velvet tongue and the lightning wit. When watching re-runs of the Monkees which one do you think I want to be serenaded by? That's right, Mike Nesmith the Texan. Just listen to that voice and dig those crazy sideburns! (Even my boyfriend understands this fascination: his favorite TV show is The Dukes of Hazzard.) I bring this up only to warn you that I have a predisposition towards Southern men that may someday prove fatal, and The Front Porch Prophet is written by a fellow from Georgia about a couple o' good ol' boys from a classic little town called Sequoyah.
Three years ago, A.J. Longstreet had a falling out with his best bud Eugene, but suddenly he is summoned to Eugene’s hilltop home. Come to find out Eugene is dying from terminal cancer, and he has a couple of favors to ask of his old friend. Eugene is lonely, isolated after a lifetime of bad behavior, and wants A.J. to come visit him. A.J. readily agrees. Eugene would also like A.J. to please shoot him dead when the pain becomes too much. A.J.’s not too keen on that particular favor. But he fulfills the first request, and the rift between himself and Eugene heals even as Eugene slowly fades away.
I grew up listening to Garrison Keillor every Sunday morning on the radio, and I love his gentle, easygoing narratives of small-town life. Sequoyah, Georgia, Raymond L. Atkin’s quirky town, is the Lake Wobegone of the South. The rural community is populated with a never-ending stream of strange characters. There’s Hoghead, a cook who proudly makes the world’s worst coffee and proudly posts the Daily Special in the front window every morning, as well as a cheerful Christian message. Unfortunately, he isn’t too good at separating his thoughts, so you might see advertised “THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH COUNTRY-FRIED STEAK” or “CHRIST DIED FOR THE BEST FRIED CHICKEN IN THE COUNTY.” A.J.’s wife Maggie is pretty normal, except that all of her family members are named after famous authors, so her full name is Margaret Mitchell Callahan Longstreet, and her children are named Emily Charlotte (named for BOTH the Bronte sisters in a break with tradition), Harper Lee and James Joyce. Police officer Slim could be the twin brother of Hazzard County’s Sheriff Roscoe. But everyone in the town basks in the glow of small-town friendliness, and the community happily takes its turn irritating and taking care of each other.
Part of the way Eugene amuses himself is by writing letters to all the people he knows to be sent after he dies. There’s an excerpt from each one at the beginning of every chapter. Some of them are sweet, most of them are sarcastic (Being dead is not that bad. There are a lot of people here I know. In fact, most of them were your patients.) All of them hare hilarious.
The joy of this book comes from the variety of characters and their tangled relationships. It’s really a fun read; page after page made me laugh like a hyena (I even snorted within hearing distance of some clients; that was embarrassing) but at the end I may have been sniffling a little bit. It’s very authentic and comfortable; if The Front Porch Prophet were an article of clothing it would definitely be a soft, worn, slightly dirty brown leather jacket that’s been heated in the sun so that it’s snug and warm and has that perfect old-leathery smell to it.