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Book Corner                                                                     September 28, 2007
       
                                      

THE PESTHOUSE
By Jim Crace
New York:  Nan A. Talese;  An Imprint of Doubleday. 2007, Pp. 255

Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl            

            Crace's novel is set in a future America, where government and daily life have disintegrated into small communities and the threat of constant lawlessness exists in many forms. Structures, such as bridges and highways, have generally collapsed beyond repair and walking and boating become general means of transportation.  The book's title is a reflection of the medieval level at which most of the characters live. 

What makes the novel compelling and bizarre is the underlying sense of threat and chaos.  As the two main characters, young Franklin and Margaret, walk towards coastal America to flee the country, their encounters provide an unnerving look at what happens to a once civilized society. Allusions to America's past are found in one of Franklin's musings: "...the long straight track where some time ago, he supposed, great vehicles and crowds had hastened between the grand old towns--cities was the word he'd heard--and the people of America had been as numerous and healthy as fleas." (97)

            Life and movement in this novel are formed and forced upon individuals by the terms of individual settlements, bands of thugs and ongoing mass efforts to leave America.  As Franklin travels, first by himself, his experience at the end of a day is typical:  "Even though he had arrived at its boundary fences a little after dark, a few trading stalls were still set up...his palms and tongue inspected for infection by gatekeepers, and told at once what the tariffs were--how much he'd have to pay to cross their land, the cost of food and shelter for the night, the onward ferry fee." (31)

            No explanation of where and why the immigrants are bound eastward to the ocean is ever given, but the impact of mass migration adds to the novel's atmosphere of trepidation.  "Everyone on that wide road was going to or coming from Tidewater, a town that had to be passed by anyone hoping to escape America from those flat quarters of the coast." (150).

            The religious element in the novel is muted by the overwhelming struggles for survival, but the pressures of such survival also create revolting examples of extreme and abusive religious life.  One group of people establishes themselves as a community of refuge called The Ark, run by the "Finger Baptists."   Nothing metal is allowed inside the community - no jewelry, weaponry or pans because,  "Metal is the Devil's work.  Metal is the cause of greed and war." (154). 

Margaret, who lives in the community briefly, finds out who the Finger Baptists are at supper one evening.  "The twenty Finger Baptists were the Helpless Gentlemen.  They sat before their food, their arms hanging loosely at their sides, their beards and hair pushed back, while devotees--one each--spooned food into their mouths and wiped their lips with cloths." (161) When Margaret asks for an explanation of why the leaders of the community are totally dependent and unable to function for themselves, she is told their holiness and leadership depends on having others do their work:  "Has no one told you yet?  They're not allowed to use their hands. The hands do Devil's work." (160). Later, someone says sourly to Margaret, who has escaped assignment as a devotee in attendance on the leaders, "Count yourself lucky," one of the woman had commented that evening.  "A man can itch in many places." (164)

              Life as immigrants, even escapees, on the road, is nuanced for Franklin and Margaret by memories of family and everyday habits. "But Jackie [a child] loved it when Franklin sang to her....It didn't matter that Franklin...knew only three songs, one of them a little bawdy and the other two burial hymns.  She clapped her hands and wrists with pleasure." (239)

            Crace's novel is deeply disturbing. Its images are those of the deserted and abandoned cities and people of the prophets of Hebrew Scriptures.   Its concrete details of everyday life reveal to the reader how thin is the boundary between the good of daily life and its potential destruction.  This is a novel of survival and odd hope when life support systems are at their most fragile, if they exist at all.  It makes the reader respond with: "What if...?"