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Pickle Me This

March 10, 2013

Sweet Jesus by Christine Pountney

The first time I read the plot summary for Sweet Jesus by Christine Pountney, I was terrified. sweet-jesusTwo adult sisters and their adoptive brother long-estranged, each with a dizzyingly elaborate back-story, all decide to jump in a truck in the run-up to the 2012 US Presidential Election and go look for America. I was sure it was a novel that couldn’t possibly work, but then great reviews started coming in, and there were readers who couldn’t stop talking about it. I was further intrigued by the Miriam Toews’ blurb, because Toews knows something about literary road trips. I’d also read Pountney’s previous novel, and I’d been interested in her unlikeable protagonist, and I wondered what kind of a novel this one would be whose approach was so much broader.

The novel begins with strength, in Chicago with Zeus Ortega, a professional clown whose lover is dying. As a young boy, Zeus had been adopted by the Crowe family, whose oldest daughter Connie had retained her Christian faith but she finds it tested when her husband reveals that he has gambled away all their money. Connie is in Victoria, and on the opposite coast, her younger sister Hannah (who will be familiar to readers from both Pountney’s previous novels) is visiting Newfoundland with her partner Norm, learning to hold a gun and shoot and moose, delighting in the ease of her feelings for Norm, except that she’s longing to have a baby and he doesn’t want to.

The novel’s three sections read like completely separate books, and while each section stands on its own, with deeply realized characters whose depth and complexity are compelling, I was doubtful that the stories could come together to form a seamless whole. And in a way, I was right, because while the stories do come together, there is a certain artificiality to the plotting, and depth and complexity goes by the wayside–I wanted to see these people immersed in their own worlds rather than uprooted from them. Pountney has a lot to say about sibling relationships, but the connections between Connie, Zeus and Hannah are so much more superficial than the characters’ connections to others in their lives.

By the time the siblings all meet up, however, the plot is running on the momentum of rolling wheels and open roads, and the reader will want to follow where they’re going. The destination is a mega-church in Wichita, Kansas, where Connie hopes to have her faith confirmed, where Hannah hopes to reconcile her lack of faith with her history (and perhaps make sense of her feelings for Norm), and where Zeus is hoping they won’t have to pause to long as he is en-route to New Mexico to be reunited with his birth parents. Nothing there unfolds as anyone imagined, and not one of the characters will be moving on from Kansas in quite the direction they’d planned.

Sweet Jesus is enormously ambitious in its reach, mostly successful, and packed with solid writing and more questions than answers–about faith, family, and the ties that bind us. Though the novel wobbles in parts, there is steadiness at its heart, and most importantly it leaves me enormously intrigued about what Pountney is going to get up to next.

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