cover image Night Soil

Night Soil

Dale Peck. Soho, $25 (264p) ISBN 978-1-61695-780-3

This elegantly written sucker punch of a novel from Peck (Visions and Revisions) is told mostly by a tortured young man growing up in the shadow of his family’s racist, rapacious past. Judas Stammers lives with his eccentric mother, Dixie, a potter famous for her precisely identical spherical pots. They move home to somewhere in the South, where Dixie discovers the perfect clay in the soil her ancestor, Marcus Stammers, defiled to establish (and make a fortune from) a coal mine, dug by slaves who died there. Judas, marked metaphorically by an enormous birthmark, attends the private boys’ academy Marcus founded and fights angst and loneliness in his head—and also with sex, a lot of it, in a roadside rest area bathroom. When he goes looking for answers about who his father was and what exactly his family’s legacy is, he unearths unspeakable secrets but also makes an unexpected human connection. Judas contemplates the existential dilemma at the core of civilization: “Persevere despite the absence of hope, or give up and forfeit what it means to be human.” Peck’s moving, precisely rendered prose binds the reader to Judas with a knot tied so tightly that the character and the novel are impossible to forget. (Aug.)