Poor Bobby Pickens. His doctor has diagnosed him with malignant cancer, his half-brother, F.X., has moved in after being been released from Angola Prison, and Bobby is in danger of losing his job as assistant manager at the Sonny Boy Bargain Store in Tula Springs, Louisiana.
If that doesn’t sound particularly funny, read on for a few pages and see why Bobby Pickens (or “Mr. Pickens” as he is usually addressed) might be the most amusing Southern anti-hero since Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces. James Wilcox’s Modern Baptists is filled with small-town dreamers: the handsome and Hollywood-obsessed F.X., the stuck-up and leggy red-head Toinette, and the big-hearted and big-boned Burma, who is about to be married but can’t shake her longing for another man.
We see all of these characters through the very shallow lens of Mr. Pickens, a chubby, middle-aged man with a bad comb-over, several layers of self-pity, and an unfortunate talent for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We follow him through one awkward social encounter after another. Bobby Pickens is like most of us on our worst days: unsteady, unkempt, self-conscious but yet hopelessly unaware of that piece of toilet paper sticking to the bottom of our shoe. That’s every day for Mr. Pickens, and it’s sometimes a wonder he can pick himself up from the plastic-covered love seat in his elderly mother’s house.
James Wilcox wrote Modern Baptists in the early 1980s, and many critics have hailed it as one of the finest novels you may not know about. GQ magazine’s 45th anniversary edition rated it as one of the best works of fiction in the past 45 years. It certainly must be one of the funniest. Wilcox has a dry delivery that lets you in on his characters’ flaws without being heavy-handed about it. Watching two residents of Tula Springs interact is like watching a chess match between a pair of barely sober checkers players. Each has a different agenda, and each is certain that he or she is achieving it. Yet Wilcox gives you just enough information to know that no one is winning much of anything. I haven’t laughed so hard reading a book in a long time.
Bobby Pickens suffers countless indignities. The other characters beat on him like a tetherball through most of the 239 pages. In one scene when Mr. Pickens kneels with another man to pray in a darkened bedroom, you cringe in anticipation of the embarrassment that is sure to come.
Through all the defeats, however, the main character of Modern Baptists carries on and maybe even earns a smidgeon of dignity along the way. If not a hero, he at least becomes someone you can root for. That is what makes Wilcox’s book a study in humanity as well as humor.