cover image Pew


Catherine Lacey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-374-23092-0

Lacey (Certain American States) sets an ambitious, powerful fable of identity and belief in the contemporary American South. An unnamed person with no sense of gender or race (“Anything I remember being told about my body contradicts something else I’ve been told. I look at my skin and cannot say what shade it is”) is found sleeping in a church pew by Steven, Hilda, and their three boys. The family decide to house the mute stranger, whom they name Pew. The action, which takes place over one week, mostly consists of Pew’s interactions with the town’s residents, who offer one-sided monologues to Pew about their Christian beliefs and believe Pew is their “new jesus.” Pew’s indeterminate features and the townspeople’s habit of projecting onto Pew lead them to see what they want to see, and here Lacey showcases a keen ear for the lilting, sometimes bombastic music of human speech that reveals more than her speakers intend. Pew, meanwhile, bonds with Nelson, a teenage refugee from a war-torn country whose intelligence his caretakers underestimate. Lacey’s incisive look at the townspeople’s narrow understanding draws a stark contrast with Pew’s mute wishes, imagining a life in which “our bodies wouldn’t determine our lives, or the lives of others.” The action builds toward a mysterious Forgiveness Festival and a memorable climax with disturbing echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” unveiled in a harrowing crescendo of call and response. Lacey’s talent shines in this masterful work, her best yet. [em](July) [/em]