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At 211 pages, Darcey Steinke's novel Jesus Saves is a thin, maneagable thing, but it took me weeks to read. I dreaded dipping into it, and each time I picked it up it bore down hard on my hands. Not because of its style, which is admirably poetic. Not because of its themes, since religion or the lack of it, as well as evil and its presence, shadow us all. And not because of its characters, either: Her shabby suburbanites live and breathe with a subtle, depressing fleshiness. I often couldn't bear to read it because its exploration of sadism and insanity came across as all too real.
Sandy Patrick, one of the novel's two young female protagonists, has been abducted from her summer camp by a man identified only as "the troll." He ties her up and rapes her repeatedly throughout the book. And these sections, which juxtapose the troll's assaults with Sandy's mind slipping off into a magic-realist world of fairy tales she invents to escape the present tense, are nearly unbearable to read. But oddly, they're not as horrifying somehow as the descriptions of the food he sparingly feeds her -- pea soup served still in the can, chunks of Swiss cheese, spaghetti with olives and capers. This food comes to seem as revolting as his semen. (At one point, "She tipped her head sideways and gagged up warm Coke laced with come.")
Because of all the posters with Sandy's face on them, everyone in town knows she's missing. Ginger, a less-than-ladylike minister's daughter, thinks about Sandy as she moves through the bleak outskirts of town, between strip malls and woods, her father's church and her boyfriend's bed. Ginger's smarter than the mundane, even hopeless, circumstances of her lower-middle-class environs, but you get the feeling she lacks the ambition to do anything about it. She just sits with her father (himself smarter than his here-we-are-entertain-us congregation who are bored by his sermons filled with impossible references to "children of the Enlightenment"), the two of them aware of (but not surprised by) the dearth of truth and beauty around them. Of Ginger's disturbed boyfriend, Steinke writes, "Ted was fucked up, but he was still the only person who knew all the ways to make her feel alive."
Jesus Saves: A title was never meant more ironically, considering how far these characters, and Sandy Patrick especially, live from any kind of redemption. Maybe this novel was so hard to get through because it might be a little too easy. It's simpler, for instance, to powerfully portray a teen-age girl being brutalized than one merely dealing with complicated, normal growing pains. Perhaps the difficulties of being a novelist are not unlike the challenges facing men of the cloth. As Ginger's minister father puts it, "Grace is impossible to explain." -- Salon