Steven Sherrill is responsible for two of my favourite novels of the last 20 years: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break and Visits from the Drowned Girl. Each of these books is as funny and wise as any Willy Vlautin book you’d care to mention but shot through with a powerful darkness (like a million splinters of glass, so small you can’t see them but touch them and you’ll bleed for a week). A new novel from Sherrill is a major event in my house. Joy, PA – the novel takes its name from the place where the action is situated – more than earns its place on the shel besides those first two books: again with the funny, again with the wise and the dark but this time also occasionally rearing up on its back legs in a crazed, over the top, slightly comic albeit tense and worrying way. Pretty much from the get-go, we are in a world of worry, crazed faith and madness.
We flit – via a series of strange hieroglyphs – between three characters: a boy, Willie, his mom, Abigail, and his father; collectively, the Augenbauchs. Just so you know: dysfunctional is not the word. Abigail works at the nearby Slinky factory and believes the world is going to end in three days. She focuses a lot of her attention on the voice of an evangelist who shares with her a grim vision of the end of the world. Abigail suspects her son won’t make it through the Rapture, though she does her best to make him pray, and her husband, the war veteran who spends most of his time asleep on the couch in the basement watching porn or playing golf videogames definitely isn’t going to make it. Willy doesn’t want his mum to go to heaven without him. Willy is a bit messed up (as a short trip into his neighbour’s house illustrates) but he’s nothing next to his old man, who is given to ringing in bomb threats to the local pharmacy and fantasising about the young pharmacist who works there.
Sherrill sure can write a pretty sentence, though, in the midst of all the grim. Here he is describing the golfing videogame:
“You tee up on the first hole. in there, the sky is always blue blue blue. Everything is beautiful. The azaleas. The magnolia trees. in the distance, the green shimmers like a jewel, its mustard-yellow pin flag flutters in an unreal wind. Everybody awaits your next move. Ready to cheer. The crowd hushes just before you swing.”
He also has a way with deftly describing the mountain of actions that have made a person who they are. Here he is in the head of Abigail as she makes her way into work:
“Years and years of demeaning, mindless jobs have rendered Abigail numb and obedient. Sheeplike. She moves through the routine of days without expectation, without hope, unseeing and unseen, unquestioning and unconsidered. Like her mother. Like her grandmother. Until now. Until the man on the radio. Until the coming Judgement.”
“There is nothing,” we are told later, “worth exploring, much less documenting, in an Augenbaugh life.” And yet here we are: wrapt, enthralled, turning the pages like we’re hungry for them. We move from the infinite to the particular in a moment:
“Night does what night does. Somewhere beyond that, the hurdy-gurdy universe careens indifferently. She knows the husband stands over her, ready to strike. She knows the boy, Willie, sits at the kitchen table. He’s eating something. It is the lottery ticket.”
There are long nights in Joy, PA. And Sherrill has some fun with describing night (it’s a dumbwaiter, it’s a mad dowser, it’s a gyroscopic scapegoat) but the prevailing mood is one of impending doom and you feel strapped in, rollercoastered, as you swiftly progress to what can only be a bad end. Kudos to Sherrill for not playing all of his cards too soon. It’s also worth saying: it is as out there as the most out there Douglas Coupland novel at times (think All Families Are Psychotic) but Sherrill never loses us (as we know Coupland sometimes can). This is a ride we don’t want to end. And we can but hope that it isn’t too long before we hear from Sherrill again.
Any Cop?: It’s a good read, to coin a phrase, a book you’ll find gets to the strange heart of things. Highly recommended.