By Drew Hart
In no way a “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” Pew is instead a kind of reverie, a wide-eyed spin on the Southern novel.
Pew by Catherine Lacey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp., $26.
Can you, in fact, go home again? One mainstay of Southern writing, Thomas Wolfe, is famous for asserting that you can’t. But Catherine Lacey’s newest work, Pew, isn’t concerned with going home — it’s wondering whether we are anywhere at all.
The “pew” in the title at first appears to be the church bench that its narrator — a young voice of indeterminate age, gender, and ethnicity — falls asleep upon, seeking shelter one night in the backwoods town where this novel spends its entirety, chronicling a week’s time. It seems to be summer. Perhaps the town, far from any interstate, is in Mississippi. What year is it? Also unclear… “They” proceed with “their” tale: they awake to find themselves in the middle of a Sunday service, lying next to a family of parishioners — a husband and wife, Steven and Hilda, and their young sons. Sensing desperation, these mild-mannered good deed doers take the sleeping vagrant under their wing to find refuge in the attic of their home. But, although their intentions seem to be well-meant, the family is frustrated by its new charge: this person will not speak. The age could be 15; the dress is not particularly male or female; though seemingly of darker pigmentation, an origin isn’t obvious.
So the effort to understand who this unexpected guest might be begins — unable to coax a word out of the figure, the family tries to decipher the mystery. Having no better notion, because it’s where they first encountered them, the visitor is assigned a name: Pew. Hosts Steven and Hilda begin to enlist a battery of local townspeople to help them figure things out. Their minister arrives for supper; he too fails to ruffle the enigma. The cleric refers Pew to a psychologist, who gets nowhere, but sends them on to a wealthy family harboring a teenaged refugee from an unnamed country at war, Nelson. The adopted boy is the first to draw Pew out — he receives a reply when asking about age — “I don’t know.” But Nelson, out of place and alienated himself, doesn’t let on that he’s heard any words to anyone else. The next attempt to uncover Pew’s identity is in a trip to a medical clinic, where a doctor tries to perform an exam; the patient refuses to undress or cooperate otherwise.
The air is tense; a few days pass with these unsatisfying introductions. Not only is the host family flustered, there’s also anticipation over an impending religious “Forgiveness” festival, an annual tradition in the town. Reports of disturbances in a neighboring county, though unspecified, add an air of anxiety. After Steven and Hilda bring Pew to a pre-festival luncheon with prosperous townsfolk, whose suspicious questions once again are met with silence, it seems that things are reaching a breaking point. So much for Christian kindness; the sheltering family are talking about withholding further generosity and sending their mysterious charge away.
It’s important to note: although Pew has said nothing to anyone out loud, a great deal is explained to the reader. The meetings with all of those encountered are captured in detail, and their words are recounted. Many of the people Pew spends time with, perhaps in frustration over their inability to connect, wind up confessing things about themselves. Hilda reveals that her stepmother was once stabbed and partially blinded by her father, who also participated in notorious past local lynchings. Pew meets both of them in course. Others detail their own sad accidents and misfortune, their frustrations with life in a repressive community — quite an earful is heard. Sometimes it looks as though some of the more nonconforming voices — a bohemian couple, a Latin housekeeper, a Black minister and his family — may inspire some answers from Pew as they tell their tales; theirs seem to be the experiences best understood. But Pew transcends all of them as an outsider, as someone truly out of this world.
While others debate race and sex, wonder if they’ve met some spectral saint, or even a “new jesus,” our narrator remains resolute in the lack of being anything, or about anything. We are told that from the start — “I’m stuck living here, in some future time. This body hangs beneath me, carries me around, but it does not seem to belong to me, and even if I could see them, I would not recognize my own eyes.” And by the end, after the “Forgiveness Festival,” in which townspeople confess their sins to the community while blindfolded in an eerie ritual, Pew is unchanged: “All is uncertain…. I was alone then and I’ve been alone ever since. All of us are gone and were gone and have been gone forever.” There’s no idea what lies in store…
In no way a “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” Pew is instead a kind of reverie, a wide-eyed spin on the Southern novel. There are vestiges of the tradition still to be seen — the sinister prejudice of the region, the ignorance, the fear — and Lacey cites earlier fiction by Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor as an influence in the acknowledgments. But we’re also somewhere entirely different — in a murky, unknowing dream. The novel proceeds briskly, with elaborate but well-turned sentences that flow together and rarely fail to hold attention. It’s possible to find some repetition, to grow impatient with the mystery, and perhaps to wonder whether this tale might have made its mark as a longish short story equally well. But surely it’s an unusual departure from the mainstream, almost enough so as to not figure into the Southern genre at all, and as such noteworthy.
Drew Hart is from Santa Barbara, California