At the beginning of Faster Pastor, a NASCAR mystery jointly written by novelist Sharyn McCrumb and driver Adam Edwards, it’s particularly appropriate that race-car driver Camber Berkley should crash into the funeral of an avid racing fan in the small Tennessee town of Judas Grove. Even more appropriate, this deceased fan has willed the proceeds of his estate to a yet-to-be-identified local church. To determine the recipient, all the churches’ pastors must race each other; the winner will inherit the legacy. Arrested for reckless driving, Camber is put in jail and sentenced to community service: teaching the preachers to race.
Yes, it’s an unlikely scenario. But given McCrumb’s storytelling ability and Edwards’s inside knowledge of the racing world, most readers aren’t going to quibble with this premise. One of McCrumb’s many strengths is finding humor in daily life, and she lives up to her reputation here. She captures the population of Judas Grove with humor but also with real affection. The churches in the small town run the entire range from Episcopalians to Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, and a modern non-denominational superchurch, as well as a new-age Angel Center. Snake-handlers are welcome, too. Camber looks over his potential racers on the first day of instruction, noting, “The assortment of middle-aged men grouped around him seemed to be dressed for a volleyball tournament—sneakers, sweatpants, tee shirts—and, in one case, a lanky man, whose hair was a tribute to Elvis, was wearing a shabby black suit jacket over gray work pants.” Camber realizes his chances of success are poor: “He’d barely trust this bunch to ride in an elevator, much less a stock car.”
In the process of teaching this motley crew to race, Camber also learns more about the townspeople. There’s Pajan, a woman who seems to have taken a complete hatred to him—which, for a young good-looking man like Camber, is a new experience. Then there’s Jesús, in the next cell, a mysterious immigrant who may or may not be dealing in stolen cars and whose father may or may not be a drug dealer.
As the many religious references indicate, Faster Pastor is about more than just racing. Camber is at the bottom of the racing food chain; he has spent most of his time trying to get into a race so he’ll be noticed by NASCAR. This tunnel vision has made him a little self-centered. The experience in Judas Grove gives him time to realize what he is willing to do in order to achieve his dream. And maybe, more importantly, what he won’t do.
While the set-up for Faster Pastor may be a little far-fetched, the world of racing at the local level seems quite accurate. And the internal world of the characters, as they try to do right when faced with temptation, is certainly so.
McCrumb and Edwards will discuss their book at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville on March 19 at noon.