Book review

At the core of Catherine Lacey’s new novel “Pew,” there is an aberration: a raceless, sexless, nameless, mute protagonist that frustrates all the organizing machinery of a social caste system and defies the conventions of character.

Set in a small Christian town in the days leading up to a mysterious, slightly sinister “Forgiveness Festival,” the novel chronicles how one town’s hospitality toward a silent stranger found sleeping on a church pew curdles into suspicion once a smidgen of difference is detected in the visitor they dub “Pew.” This modern fable, written from and for an America consumed by identity politics, illustrates just how deeply embedded the impulse toward othering runs in this country, the complex social caste system developed around these ideas of difference, and the energy expended to uphold that system.

While the townsfolk sweat to pin down what Pew is exactly — white? brown? female or male? — their body defiantly eludes categorization and remains alien, even to Pew.

“This body hangs beneath me, carries me around,” Pew narrates early in the novel, “but it does not seem to belong to me.” This highly disassociated relation between Pew and their body produces some of the most stirring, beautiful sentences in the novel while chipping away at society’s compulsion to organize itself according to how our bodies look.

Ultimately, Pew dreams of a “disembodied world” where “[s]omehow our bodies wouldn’t determine our lives.” In an odd way, Pew’s extreme passivity (“I said nothing, did nothing”), their refusal to partake and be subjugated by these tools of social control, is a kind of protest — and an effective one, too.

As an anti-hero, Pew not only agitates the machinery of social organization, but also bucks many conventions of main characters in fiction.

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Pew has no origin story, no character development and seemingly no agency. Things simply happen to Pew. This is perhaps best represented by the fact that Pew is nearly mute, speaking only a handful of times, to say things like “I don’t know,” “Neither,” and “I was sleeping.” Although Pew is ostensibly the protagonist of this novel, it would be more accurate to say they function as a clever, mirrorlike device to reflect the character of the township.

Despite the fact that our protagonist is nearly mute, this novel is highly oral and features several kinds of speech: gossip, monologues and parroting, for instance. Unnerved by Pew’s stony silence, the other characters tend to engage Pew with rambling, sometimes stiff monologues in which they divulge deep, honest feelings, and sometimes ugly secrets. We learn how the racism undergirds the town’s history and swims just below the surface of present-day politeness. The town’s most well-known benefactor is also the most-feared family, because they’re in bed with the sheriff. In another case, a man on his deathbed begs forgiveness for lynching a Black man and for drowning a small black child on a dare.

Of the many speakers in this novel, the most distinguished voice is Pew’s, which is all at once brutal (“We speak with borrowed air”), mystic (“I hadn’t needed even to be born here because I had always been here”), poetic (“I softened into the night”), and insightful (“The human mind is so easily bent, and so uneasily smoothed”). Indeed, Pew’s off-kilter narrative voice, along with simmering tensions around difference and belonging, propel the reader forward.

The town chorus culminates at the Forgiveness Festival, where everyone is blindfolded, confesses their wrongdoings and is absolved of their sins. Any sense of resolution this festival might suggest is illusory and merely to assuage the consciences of the townsfolk who participate. To truly amend these sins, greater accountability is needed.

In the final pages of the novel, Lacey unexpectedly invokes the reader in a midnight “you,” using the second person to implicate the reader in the final moments of the Forgiveness Festival. Like Pew, the reader is called on to bear witness to these harms, yet remain unable to act.

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Pew” by Catherine Lacey, FSG, 224 pp., $26