Pew by Catherine Lacey

Pew is an extraordinary novel. Every word weighty with meaning, measured just so, held up to bright examination and understood to always, even with this level of care, be wanting. It’s a political, intersectional, theological and philosophical exploration of life from the viewpoint of a person who rarely speaks and who likes to sleep in churches when they’re tired.

Found one morning sleeping in a family’s regular pew, the local community is baffled by this person. What age are they? What race are they? Are they male or female? Why don’t they just help them out by speaking a little, by explaining themselves? 

So they can help themselves help this vagrant young person, the community name them Pew, after the place they were found and so begins a round of visits and stays that shift Pew from person to person, all ostensibly intending to help Pew figure out where Pew belongs, while revealing the community’s own discomfort at the idea of a person they cannot quantify or place.

Each new person who speaks to Pew reveals something of their outlook on the world. The silence of Pew provokes a one sided conversation that exposes this community in its generosity and its lack of self-awareness. Pew is a masterpiece.

Is Pew the new Jesus? Is Pew the lost son of Mrs. Columbus from the black side of town? (Note even the names have something to say and I should have explained that part way through the week they wonder if Pew is African American and send her to the other side of townanother hugely interesting theme in the novel.) Mrs. Columbus’ son went away. She explains it to Pew in this way:

Then, only a few days before he went away, Johnny kept telling me about how he didn’t believe in anyone being different from anyone else, and I told him, well, I agreed with that, that all of God’s children are equal and he said, no, not like that. He said it was larger and harder to believe, that he had begun to think you couldn’t even love just one person more than someone else, that you couldn’t prefer one community over another one, that you couldn’t believe in one country over another one, that you couldn’t even prefer your own by-blood family—that the family you were born into didn’t mean anything, that you couldn’t even have a name. You have to give it all up. You had to truly be nothing. He said that’s what Jesus was really teaching and all these people had it wrong. You had to be nothing. Nothing.’ (p175)

Mrs. Columbus had come to see Pew hoping Pew might be Johnny, but when she says she doesn’t know Pew at all, Pew writes, ‘She looked at me one last time and I looked at her and what she said simply was not true. We did know each other. Whatever we may have known before or since didn’t matter. Even as she said she didn’t know me, I could see this and I felt sure that she could, too. It didn’t matter what was said, not this time. A word is put down as a placeholder for something that cannot be communicated, no matter what anyone tries, no matter how many words accumulate, there is always that absence. I stayed silent.’ (p176)

And we never really know who Pew is because the book suggests that it is hard to ever truly know another or be known by another. ‘Too much light will blind you and too much water will drown you. It is a danger to accept anything real from another person, to know something of them. A person has to be careful about the voices they listen to, the faces they let themselves see.’ (page 108)

Pew has a particular ability to see into people. ‘I don’t know how it is I can sometimes see all these things in people—see these silent things in people—and though it has been helpful, I think, at times, so often it feels like an affliction, to see through those masks meant to protect a peron’s wants and unmet needs. People wear those masks for a reason, like river dams and jar lids have a reason.’ (page 166)

Pew spends one week in this town from laying down to sleep on the Saturday in the pew, to the following Saturday of the local religious festival: the festival of forgiveness, which the black preacher helped to set up but now feels uneasy about, feeling ‘Forgiveness is sometimes just a costume for forgetting’ (p194). 

Pew makes it all the way to the festival, is part of the ritual and witnesses their religion, their community. It’s like a huge metaphor for human history.

To say too much more wouldn’t reveal the plot, because this book is as much about each small moment of intimate conversation as it is about what happens. But there is one more quote I can’t resist repeating because it rang so true to me. 

Pew takes a walk with an old man, Mr. Kercher, who comes from outside the community and only lives there because his daughter married into one of the old, important families. He is tired of the way people live in this town and as he walks with Pew, he offers his life and his philosophy to her silence.

It’s always seemed to me—and as I get older, I feel this even more intensely—that kindness to other people comes with its own reward. It can be immediately felt. And the only thing I can see that a belief in divinity makes possible in this world is a right toward cruelty —the belief in an afterlife being the real life… not here. People need a sense of righteousness to take things from others… to carry out violence. Divinity gives them that. It creates the reins for cruelty.’ (p126)

There is more to this novel than I’ve managed to explain. There is more that will be gained from reading and rereading. It is a beautiful, sharp, angry and generous novel. For a book about a person with no identity, in which very little happens, this is very much a story for our times. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I love it. Read this book! I’ll be reviewing Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor next and probably buying all of Catherine Lacey’s other work!

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