A STRANGER rolls into town, and nothing is ever the same again: it is one of the founding stories of Americana. In Pew, this classic tale is remade for 21st-century hot-button concerns about identity, gender, ethnicity, and alienation. Piling on layers of Southern Gothic heat and past misdeeds, with a big nod to Shirley Jackson’s horror short story The Lottery, Catherine Lacey skilfully sets up expectations — only to take them apart again.
Foreboding pulsates around the fate of the socially isolated narrator Pew, and yet their physical safety remains intact. A similar push-and-pull sensation operates between the novel’s taut structure and short sentences, and the lavish intensity of feeling and landscape.
The arrival of the narrator in a nameless, out-of-the-way, small southern American town — “we’re not even on the Inter-State” — is portrayed as an unfolding, as if they were destined to be there rather than an act of volition. One of the town’s most devoted church families, Hilda and Steven and their three sons, discover a person of indeterminate age, gender, and ethnicity asleep on their favourite pew. The couple take the drifter in out of Christian duty. But their eldest child, Jack, observes at the restaurant en route to home, “He ought to be in the back in there, one of them that picks up the dishes. . . Everybody’s got a place. Dad told me so,” telegraphing that this exercise in brotherly love is built on sand.
© Willy SommaThe author Catherine Lacey, is an award-winning novelist, and Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi
Topsy-turviness pervades the novel. Children are portrayed as offshoots of their status-obsessed, suspicious parents rather open-hearted and wise in the tradition of “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”. Roger, the local counsellor, is the most blabbermouthed, non-client-centred therapist ever. He divulges details of Nelson, his child refugee client, to Pew, and up-ends the roles of helper and helped by using his new patient as a sounding board to air his own neuroses and grievances: “When I was about your age. . .” But Pew’s age is as undetermined as their gender and ethnicity. Roger has seen what he wants to see to meet his own needs.
Physical laws of the material world are sporadically suspended in the novel. To let Pew sit in the front of their “family car, a big wide thing, with huge wheels”, Hilda has to fold herself into the trunk. During a meeting at the house of one of the town’s richest families, Pew retreats to a bathroom, where Kitty and Butch’s truanting daughter, Annie, materialises, legs first, through a ventilation duct. The Festival of Forgiveness finale, with its disguising white costumes, blindfolds, and veiling white curtains dropping from the ceiling, transcends ideas of preordained physical limits even further.
Why does this strange place, seen through the eyes of an unworldly, or other-worldly, narrator, resonate so much? Fundamentally, the town may be eerie, but the literary conventions that create it are recognisable. Pew’s description of “red cans of soda” instead of Coke, and having a brand-name-free vocabulary, has parallels to Star Trek encounters with faraway planets that are earthlike beneath the surface, or Gulliver’s adventures. An outsider’s perspective brings the absurdities of everyday life into sharper focus. And feeling superior to these self-righteous, materialistic hypocrites is a delicious, guilty pleasure.
At its most extreme, Pew could be seen as a take-down, in the American media tradition, of Christianity. But Lacey’s churchgoing Mississippi upbringing imbues her accounts of church communities with knowledge and assurance. One of Pew’s earliest helpers is Sonny, the church children’s minister, who relates the tragic inspiration for the hymn “It is well with my soul”.
Roger speaks of the difficulty of remembering personal testimonies in Quaker meetings, once the service has finished. Mr Kircher, a neighbour, laments the loss of the enquiring mind of his only daughter, Ava, since marrying into the town’s grandest family and joining their unspecified, but probably fundamentalist, church. “When you lose track of the person you know within a person they’ve become — what kind of grief is that?”
Lacey may be critical of organised religion, but she is never careless. She brings an insider’s ear to its structures and tone. At Kitty and Butch’s palatial house, Pew describes the television stand as an “altar”.
For all its surface certainty of belief, the white church community cannot tolerate ambiguity over “what we’re dealing with”, and dispatches Pew to Dr Corbin, the “Reverend” at the Second Baptist, “on the other side of town . . . the black side of town”. Here, churchgoers are less preoccupied by existential woes, grappling instead with unemployment, homelessness, and missing family members. Sceptical of the Forgiveness Festival as “just something to do”, Dr Corbin drops off Pew near the heart of the Festival, possibly healing or sealing the fate of the whole community.
Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.
Pew by Catherine Lacey is published by Granta Books at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-78378-519-3.
PEW — SOME QUESTIONS
- “More than all this skin, this weight.” What is the “more” that Pew refers to here? What are they searching for?
- How do Steven and Hilda react when Pew does not appear to be “helped” in the way they wish? Why is this challenging?
- “It’s a ritual [. . .] they don’t really mean anything. They’re just something to do.” How are rituals presented in the novel?
- “Why did we think the content of a body meant anything?” Is your sense of “you” separate from your body, or entwined with it?
- Is staying silent Pew’s strength or vulnerability?
- “The older you get, the more you see how certainty depends on one blindness or other.” Do you agree? Can we be certain of anything?
- How is the medical profession presented in the novel?
- Pew has been described as a “confusing fable”. What, would you say, might be the message?
- “I didn’t want to be called anything.” Why is Pew so uncomfortable about names and other labels?
- One character suggests that indirect harm is “just as bad” or “worse” than conscious, direct harm. How does the novel explore this idea?
IN OUR next Reading Groups page on 4 March, we will print extra information about our next book, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. It is published by Penguin Classics at £5.99 (£5.39); 978-0-141-43980-8.
Quiet and polite Fanny Price has been living with her cousins from the age of ten, having been taken in by her rich uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, as an act of charity. While her uncle visits his plantation in Antigua, the cousins and visiting friends get swiftly drawn into flirtations, confusions, and tragedies. Fanny herself is an ambiguous protagonist, often marginalised by louder characters, but possessed of her own secret love. Published in 1814, Mansfield Park was Austen’s third novel to be published, and deals more directly with contemporary social issues than her earlier works. Fanny Price is said to be Austen’s favourite heroine.
Born in the village of Steventon, Hampshire, Jane Austen (1775-1817) was the seventh of eight children of a rector. Austen was educated both at home and at Reading Abbey Girls’ School. She is best known for her six novels exploring the world of the English landed gentry in the late 18th century, many of which received favourable reviews in her lifetime. Austen moved to Bath with her family in 1801, before eventually returning to Hampshire with her mother and sister Cassandra in 1809. She died in 1817 and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. All of Austen’s novels were published anonymously.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
April: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
May: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan