Jesus Saves – It’s Just a Question of When

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.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor

Thoughts on the Dangers of Pretending to be a Poet (Part 3)

The dangers are legion, but this post pertains to mockery.

The harshest, obviously, is from your parents. “You are wasting your time and embarrassing the family,” my father says. Then he adds. “No one reads them anyway.”

“How can my poems embarrass the great Carp name if no one reads them?”

“Your unread poems aren’t the embarrassment. You are.”

My mother is gentler. “Muckypants, can you really be a poet if no one reads your poems?”

“You read my poems, Mom.”

“Oh, yes, that’s . . . right. Of course, I do. They’re very . . . quite long, aren’t they?”

Well, I think they’re only as long as they need to be.”

“Oh, bless your heart.”

As anyone from Roanoke will tell you – if someone says “bless your heart,” you just said something stupid.

Luvgood Carp, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

William Gibson and the Benefits of Agency

The internet says William Gibson writes speculative fiction and is widely credited with originating cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction. That means nothing to us. All we know is this. He excels at creating believable worlds/alternative universes that resemble ours but are different in fascinating and disconcerting ways. And as always, even if the story takes place in the future, it is really about us in our current times.

We picked up Agency, a follow up to The Peripheral (which is wonderful), at our favorite Roanoke bookstore, Book No Further (booknofurther.com). As is typical with Mr. Gibson, the reader is immediately thrust into a world that seems familiar but is different in many striking ways. The story takes place primarily in two timelines with a third one providing a supporting role (because why have only two timelines when you can have three?). So don’t get comfortable because you will be jumping between a London in 2136 and a California in 2017. The 2017 timeline is a “stub” that broke away in 2015. For good measure there are characters from the 2017 timeline that the “stub” broke away from, and they make hit and run (literally) appearances. Got it? Yes, of course I do – it’s all so obvious. Good. Now, let’s talk about AI.

In California, Verity Jane has been hired by a shadowy corporation (an agency?) to test a new form of artificial intelligence. The AI has a name, Eunice, and she is a brilliant composite of the best minds in espionage and military tactics. Though she is referred to as AI, she is more like a human-machine hybrid. Fortunately, her remarkable deductive reasoning skills come with an ethical core (that must be the machine part). Verity quickly determines that Eunice is way too intelligent and powerful to be left in the hands of her creepy employer. Eunice agrees. So they run. The employer, of course, chases them – because the story would suck if that didn’t happen. The folks in London decide to help Verity and Eunice, because not helping will result in nuclear holocaust. Yes, shit gets real, real fast.

Eunice (the name appropriately means “Joyous Victory”) is easily the best character in the book. She would be the best character in lots of books. She is snarky, intelligent, and not at all artificial. Though she is initially confused about her background, she is fully capable of responding to the threats swirling around Verity and her. And that’s the problem. Eunice is more than formidable. She is invincible – always two steps ahead of her foes. So it never seems that Verity and Eunice are in true danger.

Despite this, Agency is a fun ride right to the end – in part, because the characters are smart and engaging and, in part, because the worlds associated with each timeline are so interesting and convincingly depicted. But remember, the book is called Agency, meaning the capacity to act. It is not titled The Agency – a collection of shady former government employees willing to kill to get even richer. And in this story, Eunice has all the agency. Everyone else just reacts.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Tengo Leche

Titmouse Beak, here – CEO of Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology. One of the real treats of living in Roanoke is Breadcraft. http://breadcraftbakery.com. Every morning before work, I go there for a cup of freshly-brewed coffee and a delicious breakfast. Today it was mushroom and asiago cheese quiche. Wonderful! I am pecking at the crumbs now.

Then I go on Facebook and look up former girlfriends; check on former students – sometimes they are one and the same. Today I saw a post from Tengo Leche. No idea who he is – except he is a former student who has gone on to do great things. Just goes to show that a degree from Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology is well worth the mountain of debt you will have after you leave. Here’s Tengo’s post.

Neptune Returns Home

   Lord, could it be I'm not as great
   as they've been telling me?

   I was told at an early age
   that I'm better than the rest.
   I have the trophies that prove it true.
   But now in every single contest
   I'm beaten by more than a few.

   For years I splashed in a tub
   pretending to rule the wine-dark sea.
   But now when I go to Dad's club,
   no one confuses Neptune with me.

   So here I am back in my old room
   (having finished my education)
   with an hourly job and minimum pay
   and these trophies say "participation."

   Lord, club-footed Byron couldn't dance
   but You gave him eloquence and artistry,
   and now he's the avatar of romance.
   So, Lord, what will you do for me?

   Lord?

   Tengo Leche, Former Student of Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology
    

Titillation

I was staring at the Peaks of Otter http://blueridgeparkway.org/poi/peaks-of-otter, which are right outside Roanoke, when this poem came to mind. I hope you like it.

Titillation

   This is a poem about my nipples.
   I call it "Titillation" because that's a pun
   and people pretending to be poets
   use puns as the illiterati use memes:
   to prove how clever we are.
   So prepare to be impressed.

                      *

   My nipples are erect all the time.
   So reliably erect, when nothing else is.

   In thin silky shirts they are steeples.
   In thick cotton pullovers they are pimples.

   Are they impressions that misleadingly point to titillation?

   Or are they just sad signs for all to see
   that my world has become cold?

                       *

   I'm pretty sure that's a metaphor,
   which again showcases my cleverness - 
   something I desperately want to convey.

   You'll also find
   I did not rhyme.
   People pretending to be poets
   don't do that anymore.
   It's crass.

   And, yes, I know.
   By writing about my nipples
   I risk being accused of indulgence
   and narcissism.
   But that's a risk
   people pretending to be poets
   are perfectly happy to take.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

   First Published in Defenestration.







Gilead: Nothing is Small

Yesterday, we sat with friends on the expansive sun-filled patio at Big Lick Brewing Company (biglickbrewingco.com), which is not the worst craft brewery in Roanoke. Tuco’s (tucostaqueria.com), which is not the worst taco joint in Roanoke, is across the street, and we had ordered take-out; sat at one of the tables on the patio; and ate savory food and drank golden beer. It was a gorgeous autumn day, and the mountains ringing this small city were blue. This is Roanoke at its wondrous best.

In Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Marilynne Robinson explores the tempestuous beauty of life. And it is wondrous. Gilead is a fictional small town in Iowa. However, it is small in the same sense that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is small – in the same sense that the universe is small. Similarly, Faulkner’s admonishment about the past not being dead or even the the past is equally apt here. And like Faulkner, Robinson does not traffic in trivialities. She draws water from the well’s deepest depths.

The story is a letter from an elderly father, John Ames, to his young son. Ames rightly believes the letter is necessary because he will not live long enough for his son to really know him. Ames has lived his entire life in Gilead and has never desired to live anywhere else. He understands that nothing in life is small – regardless of where you live. Speaking of Gilead, Ames declares “[i]n eternity this world will be Troy . . . and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” The people living in Gilead are ordinary, which Robinson understands to mean they are extraordinary. “There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs.” There have also been villains and lost souls desperately seeking redemption. Relationships are rich and at times fraught. Thoughts are deep. Answers are complicated, if they exist at all.

While the novel’s conceit is a letter, it is really an extended meditation on religion and spirituality. Ames is the son and the grandson of preachers. His best friend is (yes, you guessed it) a preacher. But a life dictated by Christian norms and tenets has not made Ames a lazy thinker, so do not expect to find anything glib, easy, or trite here. Ames states “[i]n the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” The meaning of life cannot be known. However, regardless of its occasional pettiness and torment, life is miraculous. We can not match the spare beauty of Robinson’s prose on this (or any) topic, so we will give her the last word. We need to “acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans