A title like “Sweet Jesus” evokes a variety of responses, some of them strong. Perhaps a dismissive snort from the sceptic who assumes it to be a soft-headed work of religious devotion. Perhaps a sigh of frustration from the Christian who assumes that any novel so titled must inevitably deride faith as mouth-foaming fanaticism. Perhaps neither even picks it up, wishing to avoid engagement with the perceived target audience. For this book, such reactions are part of the point.
The novel tells the story of three siblings from an evangelical Christian family with a host of cracks and pitfalls. Connie is a well-heeled mother of three, and committed Christian whose worldly security suddenly disappears. Hannah is a free spirit by turns sceptical, and open; frustrated in her desire for a family of her own. Adopted and much younger Zeus (short for Jésus) is a recently bereaved hospital clown whose relationship with his adoptive family has been complicated by his being gay. Connie and Hannah decide to visit a mega-church in Kansas where their mother Rose had a profound religious experience years before. Zeus accepts their offer of a ride part way south as he seeks his birth parents. All three struggle with profound loss and deep longing; all three hit the road looking for something.
A primary theme of the book is spiritual and religious faith, and the interaction between those who have it and those who do not. Each sibling has different struggles with it, and these are explored against the backdrop of a trip through middle America to a church representing a spiritual, social, and political voice with which each traveller has an uncertain relationship. Pountney handles this topic very well, taking faith and religious experience seriously while communicating the ambiguities of seeking God where there is both “ugliness and an appetite for the divine.” This deft treatment is nowhere more evident than at the point where Connie and Hannah both seek prophetic ministry while Zeus, having concluded that “[t]his is bullshit,” and left the building, meets a young evangelical uncertain about his sexuality. For Connie, there is a sense of coherence and insight, of God speaking. Hannah is moved but has little clarity or sense of connection, less authenticity. Zeus is tempted to confront a Christian culture that seems bent on making being gay so hard. Is each simply seeing and hearing what he or she wants or needs or expects to hear? Is God in one experience, or another, or all, or none? Why do some receive confirming experiences of faith or spirituality or the divine and not others? Pountney asks such questions without insisting on a particular answer, rather inviting her reader to wrestle with them.
Her achievement is greatly enhanced by addressing faith within the context of family. The countless laughs and irritations and pleasures and woundings come through in spades, such as when Rose has suggested that Connie and Hannah visit the church in Kansas and we read that
…Connie didn’t enjoy hurting her mother. It made her feel awful, but she couldn’t banish her own cruelty and impatience. Why are you always trying to fix everyone? she said. Why can’t you just support me without shoving your opinions in my face?
I’m not trying to fix anyone, Con, that’s not what I’m saying. Rose looked so injured. This is just something I thought would be really good for you. Something I wanted us to share.
Connie pulled her hair back away from her face.
You don’t have to go – Rose took another quick suck on the little snorkel of her inhaler – it was just a suggestion.
Clumsy, unintentional scraping across old wounds, and inflicting new ones, even in a heartfelt effort to help and succour; for many, such experiences are indivisible from family. Add disagreements over spiritual beliefs and the associated risk of hard words or even a break in relationship and you have a potent brew indeed. Pountney handles the combination with tremendous skill, allowing her characters to be themselves rather than anyone's bullhorn. This is helped by description and imagery that is vivid without being overwritten, for example her account of a worship service where “[t]he music gradually faded and the congregation, exhausted, subsided into their seats, like a wave sinking into the sand.” Pountney’s journey through this country rings true.
That said, the book isn't a home run. The depiction of Connie's faith feels thin; here is an orthodox Christian who virtually never reads her Bible or prays outside liturgical formulas (and I speak as someone who loves liturgy). Taking the perspective of Harlan, Norm, and Rose didn't seem to advance the story much, with the possible exception of Rose. Perhaps most significantly, it is difficult to identify ways in which the characters changed, grew, or developed. This might be thought unfair; part of Pountney’s apparent purpose is to show conversation about faith and family that is neither proselytization nor condemnation (in any direction), and “development” in this space easily becomes polemic on the author's part. Still, there is an unsatisfying notion in the book that “we are all becoming more of who we are,” as if who we are is independent of our responses and reactions, as if interacting with those who differ from us can or even ought to be completely free of polemic. As if the arcing that occurs between different and often conflicting narratives were that tidy.
The novel is more about Zeus than the others. His journey sparks those of his sisters, and continues after theirs end. As he approaches his childhood home, he indeed moves into more of what he has known, more “newness and change, and loss.” Is this all that is given him? Will he find home, family, faith? As the book concludes, such questions are as palpable as Zeus’ longing to see them answered, not intellectually, but in tears and an offered embrace. That questioning and longing are ours too; we all have holy names that others have shortened for us. Pountney beckons her reader into reflection and conversation about that. She is to be thanked for the artful invitation.