WALKING ACROSS EGYPT By Clyde Edgerton Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 217 pp. $14.95
Seventy-eight-year-old Mattie Rigsbee "walked into the kitchen, turned on the light and saw through the window that the eastern sky was dark red. It was her favorite time of the day. She stepped out onto the back step. It was cool ... People thought that time never stood still, except in Joshua when the sun stood still; but she knew that for a minute before sunrise when the sky began to lighten, showing dark, early clouds, there was often a pause when nothing moved, not even time, and she was always happy to be up and in that moment; sometimes she tried to stand perfectly still, to not move with time not moving, and it seemed that if she was not careful, she might slip out of this world and into another."
This quote gives the flavor and reach of Clyde Edgerton's prose in "Walking Across Egypt," but doesn't show how wonderfully funny his book is. In the space of this short novel, Mattie Rigsbee decides she's too old to keep a dog -- she's "slowing down" -- goes shopping for caskets with her friend Pearl (they decide to wait for the new "stainless" models to arrive), assumes charge of the "Lottie Moon" missionary collection at her church, has one embarrassing accident and is rescued by Lamar, the dogcatcher, whose nephew Wesley writes from the Young Men's Rehabilitation Center:
"Dear Lamar: I want you to try to get me out of here If you can sign this thing they'll put me in your Custedy ... They will put us in a solatary confinement room if we mess up. They done had me in there twice and I didn't do a thing ..."
I can't think of anything I've read quite like "Walking Across Egypt." Ambitious writers -- Robert Stone and Graham Greene among them -- have written about contemporary Christian saints but not many writers have dealt, fondly, with the life of an ordinary Christian believer. Mattie has two (alas, unmarried) children. There's Robert, who runs the Convenient Food Mart, and Elaine, who with a Bible in her hand once told her: " 'Mother, it is wonderful literature. There are beautiful stories all through it, and that's a wonderful achievement, a wonderful monument even, a monument to humanity, but Mother that's all it is ...' "
"Mattie had been horrified. It was as if Elaine had died and someone had returned in her place.
" 'To think otherwise,' said Elaine, 'I would have to be untrue to myself and I refuse to do that. You wouldn't want that, would you?'
"To have a child think she was being true to herself and untrue to God was a magnificent and terrible problem."
Most of Mattie's theological observations are a good bit homier. One night her empty house seems especially empty: "Well, after all was said and done, after all was said and done, she had Jesus. She would always have Jesus. But. But it wasn't his way to come in and keep you company. You couldn't cook for him."
And how she cooks: biscuits and corn bread and butter beans, chowchow, pork chops and creamed potatoes, pound cake and apple pie -- "solid, the apples held together with a cold solid filling. It was thick, with a faint hint of sparkling sugar on the crust."
When Mattie returns from the rehabilitation center where she took the hapless Wesley a meal, her friend Pearl asks why. She replies:
" 'It hit me in Sunday School this morning for some reason. The scripture about the least of these. You know: 'When you've done something for the least of these my brethren, you've done it for me.' I thought that maybe if I took a piece of cake and pie out to that boy it would be like taking it to Jesus.'
" 'Was it?'
" 'Well, I don't know. I never took no food to Jesus.'
" 'Did it seem the same?'
" 'No. He didn't look like Jesus, or talk like him.'
" 'Well, you wouldn't expect him to if he stole a car.' "
Yes, Wesley escapes and, yes, he looks Mattie up and if I say one word more or quote another quote I'll be spoiling your laughter for the sake of recapturing mine.
Some will call "Walking Across Egypt" a regional novel, and in a sense it is. It is deeply rooted in a particular people, a place you could get in your car and find. In this precise sense, much of the best American fiction is regional.
Clyde Edgerton's book is brilliant, brief and kind. The reviewer is the author of the novels "Nop's Trials" and "The Man Who Made the Devil Glad."