The narrator of Catherine Lacey’s new novel Pew often sleeps in churches, not because they are in search of “grace or deliverance,” but because “a church is also a building, often a sturdy building, and it can keep the outside far from you and when the outside is far enough from you, that is when a person can sleep.” One Sunday morning, the narrator wakes in a church in the middle of services, in an unnamed small Southern town, and is taken in by a family seated on the same pew. At the reverend’s suggestion, they start to call the stranger “Pew,” in honor of the place where Pew was found, just as the reverend’s daughter named a stray cat that she found in the gutter, “Gutter.”
Pew has no obvious gender identity and is estranged from their own body, which they perceive as “wider in some places, narrower in others, and some parts were soft, and some were warm, and where my legs met, there was something I knew to protect, though I could not say why.” The townspeople also disagree about Pew’s ethnicity; some perceive Pew as white, others perceive Pew as Black, others perceive Pew as possibly Latinx. Everyone is in agreement, however, that Pew has suffered a terrible trauma, and the townspeople become increasingly insistent that Pew claim a recognizable identity and reveal the nature of that assumed trauma.
Pew is Lacey’s third novel. In choosing a first-person narrator estranged from their past, Lacey returns, at least superficially, to the terrain of her first novel, Nobody is Ever Missing; yet in Pew she manages to astound once again, producing a work that draws at once from the deep wells of science fiction and Southern gothic literature. Lacey takes an epigraph from Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a thought experiment about the nature of utopia. Readers will also likely be reminded of Shirley Jackson’s classic story “The Lottery,” as the townspeople talk, in increasingly sinister terms, about Pew’s participation in the upcoming Festival—while warning them to not expect human sacrifice. In the novel’s dark humor and unusual investment in Christian theology, there is also a clear debt to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.
The novel wears these influences lightly, and Pew manages to avoid feeling derivative because of the strength of its deceptively simple, yet lyrical prose. Here is Pew reflecting upon the reverend’s questions about where they come from:
“I must have had a mother, but I also knew I didn’t have a mother. I wasn’t anyone’s son or daughter. What a freedom that was and what a burden that was—to not have a home to go home to, and to not have a home to go home to. All I could have told the Reverend, if I could have spoken, was that I was human just as he was human, only missing a few things he seemed to think I needed—a past, a memory of my past, an origin—I had none of that. I felt I wasn’t the only one, that there must have been others, that I was a part of a “we,” only I didn’t know where they were. We were and I was, not entirely alone. Maybe we were all looking for one another without knowing it.“
The anonymous quality of Pew’s thoughts is offset by the voices of the townspeople, and most of the novel consists of Pew’s conversations with others, all of whom seem to accept Pew’s silence as an invitation to talk about their own lives, often sharing with Pew thoughts and secrets they would not share with anyone else.
Through these monologues, the townspeople reveal themselves, even as Pew remains a cipher. Hilda, the wife of the couple who has taken Pew in, reminds Pew constantly of the indebtedness they should feel for the family’s unasked-for acts of beneficence. The reverend and a local art therapist insist that they respect Pew’s silence and only want the best for them, even as they hint that Pew’s failure to speak up could have dire consequences. The more that everyone reminds Pew how welcome they are, the more the reader senses an unspoken threat. Yet Pew also finds a few kindred souls in this small town, including a refugee child adopted by a wealthy family, a sensitive woman who weeps over the death of her pet peacocks, and a mother from the “black side” of town who has lost her son.
Beginning on a Sunday, the novel takes place over the course of the week leading up to the Festival, and the reader is likely to find themselves turning pages in search of some answers to Pew’s identity and the nature of the Festival. Yet anyone familiar with Lacey’s work should know by now that this visionary writer is unlikely to provide any easy answers. Pew is a beautiful meditation upon the nature of identity, sin, and community that should attract more readers to the work of this masterful writer.
By Catherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July 21, 2020