By Catherine Lacey
Catherine Lacey — the author of the much heralded “Nobody Is Ever Missing” and “The Answers” — returns with her third novel, “Pew,” a timely entry into the conversation this country’s been having for years about “otherness.” Look, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and a general intolerance for dissent or even sensible discourse on any of the above have been the portrait of American ruin for some time now. Add to that the coronavirus, and you’ve got a climate in which any book that wants to tackle the problem of community, bias and discordant experiences of the same event will necessarily feel all the more urgent. And so it is with “Pew.”
Beyond the coronavirus’s obvious toll, it has a lot of us grappling with the “uncanny,” in the potent, Freudian sense of the word — the strange and terrifying revelation of what we already know. Let’s call it accidental self-exposure. For instance, some people have no problem calling Covid-19 the “Kung flu” at campaign rallies; other people find themselves struggling with such thoughts in private with a mix of shame and sanctimony. Which is all to say: Crises tend to expose us to ourselves.
Enter into this madness “Pew,” in which the Christian residents of a small town in the American South find in their church an interloper — a person with no readily discernible gender, ethnicity, name, history or interest in talking to almost anyone. The town’s minister, whose daughter once named a stray cat after the gutter in which it was found, dubs the stranger Pew, by the same reasoning. And so the cuing begins. Pew is a stray. Pew is rescued from the church and installed in an attic bedroom by Hilda and Steven, a local couple who just want to do right, but who are menacing from the start. In the grand tradition of “The Stepford Wives” or just the caricatured hypocrisy of the Christian South, everyone in this town protests at length about values and tolerance in the singsong patois of cant.
Of Pew’s gender, the Reverend says, “You need not be ashamed of looking the way you do — as God loves all his children exactly the same — but it’s simply not clear to us which one you are and you have to be one or the other, so unless you want us to figure it out the hard way, I think you should just tell us which one you are.”
Don’t be ashamed, but. … We want to help you, but. …
The novel unfolds over the course of one week, from Creation to Sabbath, and is narrated by Pew — as if from the vantage of a worry stone that is passed from one townsperson to the next. Who are these people? You’ve seen them before, which forecloses on opportunities the novel might have taken to explore a more nuanced version of, for instance, your standard missionary who patronizes the savages in the name of saving them. Still, it’s interesting to see all this from the “savage’s” point of view.
As each day passes, the townspeople become increasingly intent on labeling Pew, on naming Pew, by way of giving shape to the shapeless. What kind of other is Pew? If the town knew, its residents would know exactly how to discriminate against it, which is critical to the majority’s retaining its power. This is how majorities work.
The longer Pew cannot be identified, the more the town begins to come apart. People start talking. Sharing. Disclosing their secrets to the worry stone, who (which?) records it all with the stoicism of an ancient.
There’s been violence. Lynchings. Doubt. And real sadness about being wed to the community and its judgment. Here is Hilda on the shame of being raised by a stepmother who is “different — you know, dark haired, sort of tan”: “We were the only family like that in town, so we had to work twice as hard to be … right. To sit right with the community. It’s all we have here — sitting right with the community. It’s all anyone wants.”
At the end of the week, there is to be a Forgiveness Festival — a bacchanal of self-exfoliation, in which the town’s fraught relationship with itself spills out into the open. The town convenes to discuss whether Pew should attend and what to do about Pew in general: “to decide, as a community, how to proceed with the maximum amount of people comfortable with what is going on” — which crystallizes just how sinister the residents’ good will really is.
Pew, for whom a Forgiveness Festival is redundant at best (“I can sometimes see all these things in people … through those masks meant to protect a person’s wants and unmet needs”), assents to it all. And so we walk with Pew, as Pew bears witness to an American community unmasking its shame, as does the novel that bears Pew’s name.