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Review: A stranger and a strange town meet cute — or do they? — in Catherine Lacey’s ‘Pew’

Catherine Lacey, the author of "Pew."
(Courtesy of Catherine Lacey)

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A stranger awakens one Sunday morning in a church, knowing nothing and saying nothing. There’s the matter of the family seated in the same pew: Hilda, her husband Steven, their many kids. Well-meaning people, we are told, who live in a well-meaning town. But danger lurks. They take our narrator to lunch. Eventually they resolve to bring them home. Except: Is this person a he? Or a she? And what about a name? And how’d they get so dirty?

An ambitious, often unsettling novel, Catherine Lacey‘s “Pew” hits hard in early chapters, landing concepts and provocations, asking big questions about race, personhood, citizenship, gender and how we make decisions with what can seem like pitch-perfect restraint. With Lacey, the author of two novels acclaimed for their fine, clever sentences and intriguing premises, we expect to be in safe hands. And for a long time, we are.

Part of what makes the early going so good is this central character’s refreshing, chilling, ultra-articulate reverse perspective on a town that may not be so wellmeaning after all. Soon this young, mute person gets a cute name: Pew. It’s where they were found! But their thinking is both analytical and naïve — like that of an alien, or at least Eleven from “Stranger Things.” Reflecting on the sanctuary of a church, for instance: “If you are caught sleeping there, the person catching you will likely not have a clear idea about how to proceed with getting rid of you.”

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Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s twist on the classic gothic horror tradition taps into elemental fears and evils that are ancient and also sadly timely.

Perplexed by many of the town’s conventions, this indeterminate and unexplained person is refreshingly nonconforming, an accidental rebel without a cause or even an origin story — a pure mystery. Equally mysterious, we come to realize, is this town that just seems so … off.

Start with Hilda, the matriarch of Pew’s rescue team: pious and nervous, giving signs she’s both guilty and ready to judge. After driving their strange guest to a minister, then a doctor, then to another lunch across town, Hilda and her crew just can’t handle the mystery of Pew. They want a name!! But our narrator? “I didn’t want to be called anything.”

Lacey sets the clock for a fast-paced mystery: The book begins on Sunday, and on Monday we learn of a rather ominous-sounding Forgiveness Festival scheduled for the following Saturday. In surprisingly contemplative passages, Pew thinks — but does not speak aloud — of how ambivalent they are about the idea of forgiveness, let alone a festival of forgiveness. With Pew remaining silent, everyone else fills up the time and space in interesting and damning ways.

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Over the last three months, 17 writers provided diaries to the Times of their days in isolation, followed by weeks of protest. This is their story.

Hilda tries to be chill: “The whole congregation is concerned, but we know God sent you to us for a reason,” she says to Pew. “He will take care of everything. It sounds silly in this day and age, but we still believe it.” And yet she starts to unravel, her attempts to justify her buried xenophobia becoming more upsetting and contorted, giving us clues that some violence, either physical or mental, public or private — or all of these — has been visited upon her in the past. In Pew’s eyes, she’s the bizarro enigma, like a horse they’d once found in the woods, “peace and terror tangled together.” You can’t imagine what Hilda’s dad has done.

"Pew," by Catherine Lacey
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Not so deep or surprising is Hilda’s wealthy pal, the blond bombshell Kitty, whose army of perfect children, cigar-chomping husband and sprawling mega-mansion are the stuff of more conventional satire. When Kitty’s husband stiffly says grace, Pew offers an interesting gloss on the moment, judging his performance “clumsy and honest, like a child gluing two pieces of paper together.”

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It’s a high-wire act, this tabula rasa of a narrator passing cool judgment on those around them, with potential disaster looming and readers primed by everything from “The Lottery” to “Midsommar” for a horrific payoff. The mechanism can withstand only so much tension, and only if the calibration is fine.

Sadly, it isn’t. The whole story is thrown off balance by the introduction of another adopted outsider, Nelson — apparently a survivor of war, a Middle Eastern tragedy, we glean. Nelson sips whiskey, hates God and isn’t particularly convincing in his anger or the way he copes. “Maybe they’d leave me alone more if they thought I was mute,” he wonders. The injustice of his situation feels far less complex than Pew’s.

There’s something rotten at the core of the much-praised faux-biopic from Josephine Decker, based on a novel fictionalizing Shirley Jackson.

In the second half of the book, the other townspeople we meet are increasingly either brittle and awful or pure and perfect, but universally less believable than the opening cast, and the impending festival becomes more and more unaccountably ominous. Everyone in any official capacity is male, comfortable in power, kind at first and ugly just beneath. Just tell us your gender, darling, they drawl — do they drawl? (One fun thing about this is that we never really figure exactly out where we are. But where we are definitely isn’t good.) Tell us, they demand of Pew — “unless you want us to figure it out the hard way.”

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All might have been forgiven if the true nature of the festival provided for a more forceful revelation. Instead of a Carmen Maria Machado shebang or even a “Stranger Things” freak-out, the final scene has the kind of balloon-fizzling feel of a minor M. Night Shyamalan movie — more “the trees actually want to kill you” than “Bruce Willis is dead.” In a book about power, control, how we live together and what sort of grace we might embrace when things go wrong, Lacey wants to posit a larger intelligence. But the vivid promise of a big finish gives way to a heart-sinking feeling that the real reckoning is yet to come.

Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”

Pew
Catherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 224 pages, $26


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