Thursday, March 15, 2012


Book: Smile Pretty and Say Jesus: The Last Great Days of PTL
Author: Hunter James
Published: 1993 (University of Georgia Press)
Pages: 210

On the surface, this is a tale of greed and denial and hypocrisy channeled through one of the biggest evangelical Christian empires this side of the Rocky Mountains. Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker start their ministry with coins rattling in their collection cigar box, got on TV through a masterful puppet show that evolved into a gi-fucking-normous media/theme park thing that made them enough money to burn through with Cadillacs and makeup and Kmart shopping sprees until their financial mismanagement and Jim's sexual eccentricities were exposed. Then Jerry Faulwell took over, trip over some of the exact same problems of his own (although on a smaller scale), and the whole shebang ended on a half-finished luxury hotel taken over by Native Americans who now owned the land on which it was getting built. 

I'm pretty sure everybody knows the surface bit of the story, or can at least trace its familiar tropes. That makes it no less enjoyable to read about. Not with a malicious anti-religious smugness, but with a wonder at exactly how much people can trust their leaders and how much these leaders can built on shaky grounds before everything just goes SMASH.

But take a closer look into this, and you'll get the equally interesting and far more worrying glimpse of a newspaper man driven insane by his job.

Late nights, early mornings, no distinguishes between the two, camping out for hours to grab two seconds of a subject's time, chasing phone calls, editors spitting profanity like sparks from blowtorches--these are all pretty standard for an old-school paper journalist. James, who eventually reveals that he's over fifty during his coverage of this scandal, should be used to it if maybe getting tired of all the abuse. Instead, he drops in these stream-of-consciousness lines, even a whole chapter, that drop psychological hints about how much he hates all of this. He misses deadlines, drinks and takes downers, doesn't seem to know how to get out of all of his misery. He doesn't enjoy any of the chase.

And based on his continual failure to get close enough to any of the major people in this to fill out 500-word articles, I really wonder how he managed that for full book.

Somehow he manages to forge a great connection between his personal downfall and the one he's supposed to be covering. It does make me wonder about his career after this, though. Was it his last stand as well as the Bakkers' and Faulwell's? He never says. I hope he retired into one of those "old guy" desk jobs he was talking about by the end. 

Which is sort of a horrible thing to wish on a reporter. But dude was worn OUT. 

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