THE WORLD’S SMALLEST BIBLE
by Dennis Must
Red Hen Press, 232 pages
DURING THE REIGN OF THE QUEEN OF PERSIA
by Joan Chase
NYRB Classics (new edition), 215 pages
reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin
GROWING UP, MID-CENTURY
Childhood is a kind of endlessly swelling pregnancy; the womb stretches and through the amniotic fluid of rooms and voices, odors and faces, the adult world becomes slowly traceable yet still distant, incomprehensible. Once in a while it ruptures and the child is forced to “grow up fast.” Otherwise, it’s the child who must give birth to her adult self.
But perhaps I’m oversimplifying: for every child, eventually, will have to negotiate the various thresholds to the adult world and will do so not in a linear progression, but rather in some sort of prolonged iterative process of seeking and receiving, receiving and seeking, a rain shower that comes and goes, once in a while revealing sun. And society has erected its own regiment of boundaries, some known, some unexpected; almost all of these require some kind of an appointment with sex or death.
Such are the haunting conditions in which we emerge as full grown members of our species that we come to realize, though often not until it’s too late, that the adults that shepherd us can also do us harm. At best, one escapes with only ache—the nagging heartfall of mortality—at worst, what? Suicide, despair?
This inquiry underlies two rather mesmerizing novels, Dennis Must’s The World’s Smallest Bible, just out from Red Hen Press, and Joan Chase’s 1983 During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, in a new edition from New York Review Classics. Both books portray children—Must’s Ethan and Jeremiah and Chase’s Celia, Jenny, Katie and Anne—in mid-20th century rural America, places only a couple hundred miles apart on the cusp of suburbanization and demographic change. And both are searching books about people trying figure out the puzzle of existence while being watched upon by the overbearing monsters of death and sex. With little plot in either novel, there is rather a heightened sensory experience—a debt the authors owe to Faulkner—a lush world to breathe in instead of merely to read about.
There is no innocent 1950s Middle America here, neither on the northeastern Ohio farm where Chase’s book is set nor in Hebron, Pennsylvania, where Jeremiah and Ethan grow up. Their father—Papa—is an alcoholic skirt chaser, who drives Mama to attempt suicide, their aunt a stripper at the Elks Club. The annual Hebron carnival is an invitation to visit the Bearded Lady and her associates. You might lose your virginity there, as Jeremiah does, but beware the clap!
The boys are about ten and eight when their mother orders the younger Jeremiah back into the children’s bedroom. She’s had it sharing her bed with her son, just another reminder of the man who’s supposed to be there and isn’t. Ethan, she says, is in charge of the boy now. But Jeremiah is the more spirited child, aggressive and sexually charged. He declares his independence early, leaving Ethan to observe his mother’s descent into madness. Rose Mueller—Mama—has lost the attention of her husband; she’s confused by middle age, boredom, and her own uncertain sexuality. To get her husband’s attention, she starts acting and dressing like one of his floozies, a woman named Lee Ann Daugherty, splitting her personality, and all of a sudden destroying the world the boys thought they inhabited. Must delivers this shift with alacrity—it comes upon the reader as is does the children with a powerful, blindsiding force. “Papa made love to one and ridiculed the other,” says Ethan, who narrates Must’s story. “It’s as if I had opened my closet door and Mama stood there, figuratively naked, handing me a note she’d written.”
New book, Ethan. Throw the old one away.
Nothing is what you think it is or was.
I’m incapable of playing the role of yours and Jeremiah’s mama any longer. That woman died long ago. I don’t know who I am. I’m somebody who sleeps with your father and prepares your and his dinners. I wash and iron your clothes. I clean this house. But please don’t ask me anything else about who I am. I simply don’t know.
(italics in the original)
For all the she is caught between the traditional and the modern, Rose Mueller could easily be just another of Chase’s “Aunts,” the five daughters, all in their 30s and 40s, still in the orbit of their mother, the fierce and sometimes forgiving matriarch, Gram. The women—Aunts May, Libby, Rachel, Grace, and Elinor—were raised on the farm Gram had bought after receiving a surprise inheritance; Libby, the mother of Celia and Jenny, lives there with her husband, a butcher named Dan. The women had grown up, in the world of Ohio farm country, rich, with property and horses. Gram hadn’t—she was sent to work at eleven—a fact she, the “Queen of Persia,” lords over her soft daughters.
Celia and Jenny and their cousins Katie and Anne, the daughters of Grace, roam as a collective across the house and fields, chunks of which the indifferent Gram keeps selling off. The four of them—the collective “we” narrating the story—bounce among the territory their mothers, Gram, the silent prick Grandad, who knows only to keep tending the cows, and their own internal, searching world, laced with emergent desire, and awareness of themselves as women. “Our mothers wouldn’t allow us to talk to like Gram though they themselves did when they were mad enough,” they say. “When we were alone we did it for fun.”
It made us feel bold and powerful. In the same way we played strip poker; it was just something that came over us, the wanting to play, the knowing we were going to, only putting it off for a little, so we could feel the excitement working in us. We were breathing hard, trembling even, when Katie threw the crumpled deck among us. Jenny might say, “Maybe we shouldn’t.” But there was no stopping us.
Will they turn out more like the hard but utterly capable Gram or like one of their confused mothers—or, still possibly, their lustrous Aunt Elinor, a New York advertising executive and recent acolyte of Christian Science? As Anne then Celia become sexually active, the girls have to negotiate conflicting feelings of passion and the need for control. Should they run wild and risk pregnancy or settle down and risk boredom? Either way, they’re soon to find out that adulthood demands bewildering compromise that can so easily lead to despair.
As the girls collectively and individually try to figure all this out, Ethan, the narrator of The World’s Smallest Bible, keeps watching, measuring the distance between Papa and the next door neighbor, a dreamer named Stanley Cuzack, trying to figure out who will be. While Papa numbs the pain in town, Cuzack builds, first a found object sculpture garden then a massive luge course to “shoot the moon” then a perpetual motion machine he thinks will make him immortal. “Stanley sang too,” says Ethan,
But he crooned for immortality in the A&P encyclopedia. Papa warbled for dames. A male bird never sated, willing to die, nay drown, in the Big Run of Lust.
Stanley’s quest captivates Ethan and their friendship becomes the heart of this story. “Cuzack is dogging something more intoxicating than poontang is to you and Papa,” he tells Jeremiah. Once Cuzack gets the perpetual motion machine going, it “won’t ever stop. Ever. After Papa, Mama, even you and me are long gone.”
Jeremiah thought awhile, then like he was thinking out loud, said, “That’s what I want to be.”
“What the Polack’s buildin’.”
He rolled over and pulled the comforters nearly over his head. “Somethin’ that’s ain’t ever gonna die.”
It’s mortality, all these children discover, that eats at the adults in their midst. On the farm, the girls must confront it: Aunt Grace, the mother of Katie and Anne, is dying of cancer. When glamorous Aunt Elinor, with her sharp clothes and colorful jewelry and determined good humor, comes for an extended stay, she’s there to cure her sister. After all, “Christian Science was a science of health, it was the power of God revealed and demonstrated. It would help all of us, as it had helped her; and it was going to cure Aunt Grace completely.” Grace will become Elinor’s perpetual motion machine.
Of course, we, like our wisened narrators, know how all this will end. But the turmoil generated in the brew of sex and death that bubbles so ferociously inside each of us makes these two books such revealing mirrors, not only on middle America, circa 1955, but on our own lives today. More so, in the surprise tragic endings of both books, the writers seem to want to say the earlier and hotter our sexuality burns the harder it is later to face the inevitable compromise and despair.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.