“Pew” by Catherine Lacey

August 23rd, 2020  |  Published in Summer 2020

Catherine Lacey’s relatively slim novel “Pew” is also one of this year’s most fascinating, and most important, novels. In a relatively small Midwestern, all white city, the character who will be named “Pew” by those who find her/him sleeping in a church pew, appears out of nowhere.  “Pew” mostly doesn’t speak, or when they do, it’s only to characters who don’t intimidate or question them.  Pew seems to have no memory at all of who they are, where they come from, whether they are male or female (or both). “Pew” is the stranger mentioned in The New Testament, and the good congregants of this Protestant church (denomination not named) decide they must take them in to their houses, if not entirely into their hearts. These good middle class (and sometimes rich) parishioners believe that because they found “Pew” in their church, that they are thus meant by God to offer shelter, and food, but also their white middle class beliefs and assumptions.  “Pew” is brought to live in the house of a prominent family (when we later learn the background of the wife/mother, many assumptions will change about her “goodness”). They are put up in the house’s attic bedroom, where they cannot, the parishioners believe, be a threat to this family and its children, one of whom is a teenaged boy in the throes of rebellion against the strictured life he’s been forced, so far, to live, and who does in small ways try to warn/befriend “Pew”.

Our good parishioners/Christians become judgmental quickly; “Pew” is taken to a local hospital to have a physical of sorts; the real reason for this act is to get Pew’s clothes off, to see whether “Pew” is male or female, but “Pew”refuses to take their clothes off; they are thus perceived by the town /church leaders to be uncooperative and ungrateful. Eventually, too, this family will want “Pew” out of their house, for fear of whatever people fear from strangers: violence? stealing? simply being “other”?  Meetings are held, which are really cocktail parties masking as meetings, to determine what to do with “Pew”. In one small paragraph, Lacey, the author, does have “Pew” remember being locked up in a cage somewhere, and though the good burghers also take “Pew” to a series of trauma specialists, “Pew” remains utterly silent, although it’s clear they understand, and occasionally “Pew” does say something, but only when they perceive that someone is a  really a marginal person within the flock/town, or a rebel; the daughter of the rich , dominant family in town, which also harbors a strange Asian young man of undetermined whereabouts/background, is in full fledged rebellion against the her own family, its values, the school they attends, and the entire ethos of the town: these are the people with whom “Pew”  will communicate, if minimally.

The novel thus questions the very heart of Christian beliefs and mores, and how and where those beliefs intersect with class, race and gender (“Pew” has darker skin, their gender is unknown, and no one ever figures out whence Pew came: they are thus a threat , multiply). These questions and beliefs are what makes “Pew” so important right now, as the entire world’s in flux, with immigrants and emigrants everywhere, with America changing from an all white country, with minorities demanding the same rights as dominant Chrisitian/Protestant whites have had from the founding of America.  “The Grand Inquisitor”, that great chapter from “The Brothers Karamazov”, comes to mind, as “Pew” does seem Christ-like at times.  Dostoyevsky understood that if/when Christ might actually return to earth, that He would probably be crucified all over again; Lacey implies the same with “Pew”, whose otherness offends/frightens the good burghers of this town, and , ultimately, “Pew” will vanish from this town, going where, no one knows (or probably cares). This particular message of The Gospels, about welcoming the stranger, may be completely paradigmatic of our times, when issues regarding race and gender and class and sexuality have been virtually turned upside down, with 40% of America rejecting their existence, their humanity, their claims to equal treatment, and the other 60% increasingly open to welcoming these strangers back into their own country of origin, and/or into their new country.

“Pew” is thus a really powerful and thought-provoking novel, a super important novel for and of our times, and I hope it garners a very wide audience.

–Daniel Brown

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