There’s nothing overtly frightening about Pew—even its unknown narrator’s sudden appearance in a small Southern town is initially viewed as more of an opportunity than a threat by the townspeople. But once these good folks have clutched the ostensible protagonist to their communal bosom, Catherine Lacey’s third novel quickly becomes foreboding. The mysterious stranger isn’t the only one to have their identity and intentions questioned. In Pew, random acts of kindness are anything but; instead of paying something forward, good deeds have an expiration date, if not strings attached.
The novel begins with the unnamed narrator enumerating the reasons why people go to church—habit, guidance, “the endless search for that final thing”—some of which the character observes are also the impetuses for entering a mall or casino. But our protagonist has gone to church to rest, bone-weary after some unspecified event or series of events. The following morning, they are taken in by the Bonner family, led by Hilda and Steven. This act of charity comes to encompass the entire fictional town. While the taciturn narrator placidly takes in everything being said to and about them, they almost never speak—in part, because they have very little memory of anything before their arrival, though it’s implied there are other reasons.
Though the broad strokes might seem familiar, at every turn Lacey resists conventional developments. She takes the bland entry-point character to new extremes, omitting gender, age, and race—basic descriptors, or rather, what we’ve come to think of as basic descriptors for a character. The author doesn’t even give her narrator a name; instead, she has the town’s reverend “christen” them as “Pew” because of where they were found sleeping. With Pew, Lacey shifts away from the complicated and riveting lead characters of her previous novels, Nobody Is Ever Missing and The Answers. But the character does have a few distinguishable traits: They’re perceptive, a quality that’s primarily demonstrable to the reader. Pew’s able to home in on the quintessence of the surrounding characters, though their observations are often as inscrutable as they themselves are. After meeting Hilda, Pew describes their benefactor as possessing “a bruised kindness, as if something had been threatening to destroy her every day of her life and her only defense, somehow, was to remain so torn open.” Sometimes, a woman’s hairdo can make Pew “feel the pressure and presence of every person who had never been born.”
That reticence is unique to Pew—most everyone they encounter is happy to handle both ends of the conversation. But as projection becomes confession, the town’s elders feel a greater need to know more about the recipient of their generosity. Their annual Forgiveness Festival, a ritual that’s unsettling early on for its vagueness, is just a week away, making them all the more anxious. They initially couch their apprehension in solicitousness, but it soon becomes clear that the answers about Pew’s gender, race, and family will dictate how they’re treated in the community going forward. Lacey’s sardonic humor is most prominent when contending with this self-righteous lot. The townspeople espouse a tolerance that hinges on knowing exactly what they’re abiding: They can only love the sinner while hating the sin if they know who Pew is.
But that’s one of many answers that isn’t forthcoming in a disquieting narrative reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (which provides the epigraph to Lacey’s book). Rather than turn Pew into a vessel for some lesson, Lacey further defies expectations with a conclusion devoid of closure and rife with questions. Some of these questions are posed by Pew: “Why did we think the content of a body meant anything about anything? Why did we draw our conclusions based on the body when the body is so inconclusive, so mercurial?” Others will no doubt be raised by the reader, who will have pored over Lacey’s syntax for clues about Pew’s origins, or sat with teenage Annie’s ominous observation about the lead-up to the Forgiveness Festival, when “girls don’t even say anything about what happens to them because then they get into trouble for it… and anyway they’d just tell you to pray about it at the festival anyway, that there’s nothing they can do about it now.”
Lacey, a Chicagoan by way of Tupelo, Mississippi, excels at establishing the feel of a small town in the American South—the combination of intimacy and secrecy that hangs as heavy in the air as the humidity. And though her prose is a bit plainer here, she displays the same strength of insight, peeling away the niceties and social status “to see through those masks meant to protect a person’s wants and unmet needs.” But in her own ritual, Lacey creates a taxonomy of people, conventions, and their objections to classification in order to scrutinize them. For every instance of “You can call me,” there’s someone who protests categorization of themselves or a wayward family member: “not that kind of young man,” “not that sort of Christian.” The rituals themselves are called into question: “We make them, people make them, and they don’t really mean anything, even the ones that supposedly mean something—even they don’t really mean anything. They’re just something to do.”
What’s most impressive is Lacey’s restraint—like Pew, she remains an observer, withholding judgment without sparing any detail. A fabulist tale with no prescribed moral, Pew has the thrum of a foreshock, setting the reader on edge with the unlikely omens of hospitality and attrition.