A lush, provocative, and thought-provoking story of queer identity at the intersection of art, family history, capitalism, and the American racial order.
Peck (Visions and Revisions, 2015, etc.) tells the story of Judas, a scion of the fallen Stammers clan. The Stammers were once a family of Southern patricians who built a fortune on their coal empire—which means their wealth was bound up in the twin sins of slavery and environmental destruction. Like a protagonist in a Greek play, Judas pays the price for his ancestors' sins: A birth defect renders his body mangled, making him the visual representation of the Stammers' historic crimes. In an apartment near the cultish Academy that his great-grandfather Marcus founded to repent for the family's use of slave labor, Judas lives with his neglectful mother, Dixie, a talented artist whose ceramic pots are worth thousands. Consumed by the sudden eruption of his sexual appetite, Judas goes to elaborate lengths to satisfy his desire for his black classmates at the Academy. Meanwhile, in the shadow of Dixie's fame, he struggles to discover the identity of his absent father. When that missing father's books suddenly begin arriving at his and Dixie's home en masse, Judas begins to explore his family's entanglement with America's original sins. While this novel finds Peck concerned with the nation's historic debts, it is anything but serious. Judas is an irreverent, erudite, and deviously funny narrator, and the book reflects his loquacious charm with ornate prose that is downright Nabokov-ian in its exuberance, abounds in clever wordplay, malapropisms, and dense descriptive passages. Describing a creek's annual transformation from a trickle to a shallow river, Judas unleashes a torrent of florid language that reflects the creek's power: "The sheet of water lay on the land for five or six weeks, reflecting so vast a swath of sky that, staring into it from one of the third-floor windows, you could get disoriented and think you were tumbling into Heaven's opened vault." But like Judas, the book also delights in testing the reader's patience for disgustingly detailed descriptions of filth. Describing a rest stop where he seeks out anonymous sex with other men, Judas describes a repulsive scene: "[Feces] was visible everywhere, from the floaters dissolving in tea-colored water to the tread marks on the cracked tile to the smears fingerpainted on the stall by someone who found himself without toilet paper or, who knows, just didn't want to use any." In juxtaposing pristine paeans to nature with such nauseating scenes, Peck creates a sense of how thin the line between beauty and depravity is.
A compelling novel about queer identity and the sins that continue to haunt the American project.