Darcey Steinke’s Jesus Saves is a coarse and disturbing novel. It is a hair shirt. But you put it on and wear it, because even though the novel makes you uncomfortable you want to find out what happens.
The story opens with a car crash and a dead deer. Later, the deer’s head becomes the centerpiece of a shrine. To what? No idea. Maybe chaos or maybe random acts of violence. And that’s before you realize a teenage girl (like so many before her) has gone missing.
There will be blood. Literal and metaphorical. Blood spilled through cruelty, violence, negligence, and nature. “[Y]ou have to respect the earth, and if you don’t the earth gets hungry and wants blood. That’s what plane crashes are all about, blood payment.” And it’s not just the earth. Society is a vampire. Fortunately, there are plenty of vulnerable and desperate people to feed upon.
The story follows the parallel lives of two teenage girls in southwest Virginia – presumably Lynchburg or Roanoke (Ms. Steinke went to high school in Roanoke). Ginger is a minister’s daughter. Sandy is everyone’s daughter, and she has been kidnapped so she can be sold to a sex trafficking ring. The stories intersect briefly near the end.
Ginger is hardly religious in a traditional sense. “In the Bible [Ginger wryly observes], God was famous . . . for being more pleased by living animals and their slaughter than by a basket of inanimate vegetables.” Ginger’s mother recently died of cancer, and her father can barely function. It doesn’t help that the church’s major donors want him to become a televangelist. In describing a minister at a modern church, he tells Ginger the “head minister wore red suspenders and a blue striped shirt, like a Wall Street banker. They’re using corporate philosophies to make everybody feel like they’re moving up the church ladder, getting a raise or a promotion. But spiritual change is more subtle than that; you can’t just check items off a list.” Unfortunately for him, no one in his church is interested in spiritual change. They want to be entertained.
Our first introduction to Sandy is through a sermon by Ginger’s father. “Her mother says she has a dreamy side, that she collects stuffed animals, reads fantasy novels where horses fly and fairy princesses wear gowns made from flowers.” To Ginger’s father, Sandy is Christ-like, and the community must accept its complicity in her abduction. Everyone must “come to terms with the evil that resides within us.” Needless to say, the customers in his church are not entertained.
Sandy uses her childhood stuffed animals and the flying horses and unicorns in her fantasy novels to cope with the trauma of her kidnapping. As she becomes increasingly unhinged, these characters come to life. They are as real as her kidnapper. As real as Jesus. Sandy’s ordeal is brutal. Or said another way, it is realistic. The violence is not gratuitous or titillating. It is devastating.
So why is the book called Jesus Saves? We don’t know. Jesus is frequently discussed, but he never manifests. However, because we live in southwest Virginia, we would never suggest the title is ironic. That would get us shot. We accept, without question, that Jesus saves. We just wonder when he intends to start.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor