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he title of Darcey Steinke's new memoir is Easter Everywhere, and her 1997 breakthrough novel was called Jesus Saves. Last year, she published a short novella, also religious, called Milk. Judged by titles alone, Steinke's ouevre might seem like that of a particularly wholesome Sunday school teacher. But take another look: Jesus Saves is the story of a child molester with a girl in his clutches. The heroes of Milk are a gay priest and woman dangerously obsessed with her own child. And in Easter Everywhere, Steinke connects scenes from the dislocated life of a hipster writer drawn toward the subjects of sex and God — natural fascinations, perhaps, for the child of a depressed beauty queen and an intellectually frustrated Lutheran minister.
The key word in that plot summary isn't "sex" or "God," it's "hipster," and it's not really accurate. Steinke lives in Brooklyn and plays in a band and has fabulous tattoos, but despite appearances, she's no more a hipster than was Simone Weil, the radical French philosopher from whom Steinke takes her understanding of evil as closely related to mercy. Which is important, because the inverse reading of Steinke as Sunday school teacher is the hipster cliché, blurbed across the back of Steinke's books, by well-meaning critics: "Imagine," prompts an admirer of Jesus Saves in the Village Voice , "a goth-rock literary love child of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor." Such a pairing is presumably meant to sound naughty — as if McCarthy and O'Connor weren't already closely-linked writers, genuinely concerned with sex, violence and God and in no need of goth or rock to make them "edgy." But Steinke is indeed in their tradition, and like them, she's serious about her religion. Her books are a rebellion against hipsterism itself, the compartmentalization of cool that allows the earnestness of the divine — and
desire — only if it's accompanied by a thick padding of knowingness.
I found Steinke through Jesus Saves, a novel I almost overlooked because of its packaging. The blurbs and paperback's cover illustration, a porno kitsch drawing of a sad little girl in a bikini, tattooed with a unicorn and caressed by thorny tendrils, suggested the alienated anger of a kid determined to shock through irreverence. As I learned in Easter Everywhere, Steinke once was that child — she sat in the front pew of her father's church reading Mein Kampf — but the author of Jesus Saves had moved far beyond the youthful discovery that the Bible contains blood and betrayal and incest and inexplicable sexual violence, that the Good Book is, like, totally fucked up. Yes, it is; and so? Jesus Saves explores some of the potential responses. If they're not glibly redemptive, neither were those of Flannery O'Connor. And yet O'Connor's stories — populated by monkey mummies and idiot-mad preachers and obese, aging belles wearing upholstery as hats — are both grotesque and earnest: fairy tales with birth defects. What could be sadder and more serious than that? Likewise, Jesus Saves. Consider this scene from its opening pages:
Besides the highway on a treeless hill, between Gold's Gym and the black Allstate building, was her father's new church. Ted said the cross on top of the pie-shaped building looked like a satellite fallen from the sky. Her dad's car was parked near the trash Dumpsters, overflowing now with altar flowers, limp gladiola and brown carnations. He was writing tomorrow's sermon, pen poised on the yellow legal pad, willing an angel to guide his hand across the page. He'd scribble for awhile, then look up at the bronze bust of Martin Luther. Sip cold coffee. When she was little, he'd write about her funny questions. "Was Santa God's brother?" "Was heaven on the moon?" Now he'd decided she'd fallen out of God's favor, he never actually said it, but she could tell in the way he always spoke to her in his church voice, the same officious tone he used with the trustees and the ladies' guild.
Expelled from God's favor into a wasteland in which Christian bureaucrats and stoner teens are indistinguishable, the minister's daughter, Ginger, develops a fascination with an abducted child whose sexually violent misfortune becomes a plot interwoven with Ginger's aimlessness. What unites the two is "innocence," and the forced awareness that it may not be real but that violence is. Or, perhaps, that violence and innocence are not so distinct as sermons about Santa and strip-mall cathedrals would have us believe.
In 2001, the writer Peter Manseau and I went to The New School, where Steinke teaches. We asked her to write a chapter of a book we were calling "A Heretic's Bible," a sort of exquisite corpse of retold scripture we planned to mash-up with our own "psalms," dispatches from a year-long, aimless drive
Not a sexual metaphor, but a testimony.
through the margins of faith in America. We wanted Steinke to write our Song of Songs; not because the Song is a sexy book and sex laces almost all of Steinke's writing ("Was it the bourbon or the dye fumes," asks the first sentence of her 1992 novel, Suicide Blonde, "that made the pink walls quiver like vaginal lips?"), but because we thought Steinke could reveal another side to the biblical Song's eroticism. Read as a literal duet of lovers or as a metaphor for humanity's relationship with God, Song of Songs is usually taken as a purely lovely exercise. But reading Steinke's novels, we began to see that "lovely" isn't pure, it's a thick mix of want and fulfillment. Under the sun, lovely casts a shadow. That's what we hoped Steinke would contribute to our Heretic's Bible: a shadow version of Song of Songs that would reveal the violence implicit in any story of eroticism, divine or worldly.
She said she'd try. I believe she did, but when she sent in her manuscript, it began with sex and never stopped. Steinke, by then studying with an Episcopal nun named Sister Leslie, had started with the conventional interpretation of the Song, flipped it over to find its dark side, and flipped it over again to find the same the sexual romance she'd already visited, but transformed and personalized. So she translated it into the language of desire she'd lived her whole life, a collage of lovers that, like the original Song, slips back and forth between the transcendental and the mundane, romance that's religious and sexual:
When, up on all fours, your cock rooted inside me, I asked you if you felt it , you always said yes. After the second glass of wine, I noticed your green eyes looked like tiny planet earths, and you told the waitress the soup was delicious, and me that my profile was killing you. Later you kneeled down to unbuckle my silver shoes, talking all the while about how if Eve hadn't eaten the apple there'd be no reason for language, that words were needed only to define our separateness from God. Later when I saw you pull the girl onto your lap, my heart broke and I threw my donut down and ran out of the loft, down the stairs onto the Chinatown street. I no longer had you to love so I decided to love the world. But that was hard as the world, if you haven't noticed, is not that easy to love what with fast food wrappers blowing around the subway tracks where I waited in my slip dress for the Q train. I rode that fucker all the way out to Brooklyn, where I ran past the picnic tables and the BBQ grills to the shore of the lake to see if the flowers were on the trees. Pitching squares of chocolate to the ducks, I said with each overhand throw, my love, my own, I have looked for you everywhere, particularly in the pelvic region of the male species but also in red wine and hard cover books.
Easter Everywhere continues that search, but Steinke is sifting for the divine more patiently now, and the result is a quieter book. It's not a story of apocalyptic suburbia or of sexual metaphor; it's a testimony. Like Steinke's earlier work, it reveals the complexity of a genre usually defined by clichés.
Easter Everywhere did not begin as a conventional memoir. A few years ago,
There is a difference between looking and declaring yourself found.
Steinke told me she planned to write a book about a year of returning to church, the genre of religious expression that had defined her childhood as a minister's daughter. It sounded like a bad idea to me. I was afraid Steinke was losing the nerve that made her a religious writer. I was afraid she might become a pious one. When I saw her read an excerpt from the work-in-progress, I grew even more dubious of its prospects. Not because the excerpt wasn't good — it was, a neatly told account of her father's first church in a western New York tourist town, desolate in the off season — but because I was afraid the story would begin in church and end in church, abandoning all the great writing Steinke had done in between.
The finished book does begin with her father's church, and it does end with Steinke back in church, but that's all that's predictable about this memoir. Her father's church, for instance, comes in a kit, a "Complete Church Packet" for $17,000. And the "church" she joins on the last pages is not Grace Reformed, the evangelical African-American church she'd meant to chronicle, but Sister Leslie's convent. Not that Steinke becomes a nun. Sister Leslie, whose teaching relies as much on modern literature as on scripture, never pushes Steinke to join anything. And at the end of Easter Everywhere , Steinke has, in fact, drifted away from her formal church mission. She's brought a fellow traveler with her, a dissident from a Grace Reformed group that studies the "certitude and obedience" taught by Rick Warren's bestselling Purpose-Driven Life. The dissident, the writer, and the nun agree that the God who unites them must be able to speak many languages.
Steinke's faith doesn't endure — it comes and goes — but the language of Christianity is as much of a constant in her life as desire. Not just through sex, but through an ecstatic love of the flesh: the body as a temple and a temple as a place not for piety but for brilliance and beauty and physical decay, the truth of creation made visible in peeling paint, aging skin, the dead frogs for whom she held solemn funerals as a little girl. Once, she writes:
I decided to combine what I knew about communion with beauty pageants. Mandy and I stripped down to our underpants and wrapped carpet remnants around our chests like evening dresses. I found waterlogged bras in a plastic bag of old clothes. We walked along the stream snapping off cornflowers and stuck them into our hair.... I began, as my father often did, with practical advice: Never put your finger into an electrical socket, and make sure to punch airholes when you're collecting fireflies. My brother, feeling uncomfortable, elbowed Greg and they both began to giggle. I heard my voice jitter as I told how my mother cried over the bananas browning on top of the refrigerator and any sad song on the radio.
Then comes the wine; young Darcey made hers out of sumac, unaware of its consequences, and after her parents call Poison Control, "the blood of Christ flew out of my mouth right into the toilet bowl."
The voice that narrates Easter Everywhere, from Steinke's first liturgical fantasies to the dissolution of her family and her own passionate attempts at contact with other souls and other bodies, to her current condition as a single mother in Brooklyn with Christian tendencies, is calmer, more matter of fact, than that of Jesus Saves or Song of Songs or Milk. Milk, a short, mystical story of three Brooklynites conflicted between their spiritual and sexual desires, was the turning point between her earlier work and the gentleness of Easter Everywhere. Milk's characters are not much wiser than those of Jesus Saves, but they're older, they have longer biographies against which to measure their emotions and epiphanies. But if they're more skeptical, they're also more open to grace, no more confident in inevitable happy endings than they are certain of tragedy. Throughout all Steinke's writing, she looks for innocence — more than one character is obsessed with children — but from the beginning she's never made the mistake of thinking she has discovered it. There is a difference between looking and declaring yourself found.
That may be a clue to the desire that's companion to her search for innocence. If you demand certainty from your God, the presence of the former will be as terrifying as the absence of the latter. But Steinke's divine isn't so unimaginative. Her friend Sister Leslie explains, with the story of Mary Magdalene going to Jesus' grave to anoint his dead body: "'She goes inside the tomb,'" Sister Leslie said excitedly, her words spilling out fast and her hands fluttering. ‘And what she finds is nothing; she's been looking for a dead thing, but what she finds is that the tomb is empty.'"
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Jeff Sharlet is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of Jesus Plus Nothing: How American Fundamentalism's Power Elites Shaped the Faith of a Nation and the Politics of an Empire , forthcoming from HarperCollins.|
©2007 Nerve.com and Jeff Sharlet.