We know we are being led into the realm of the anguished and the absurd when Christine Pountney’s Sweet Jesus introduces two professional clowns who entertain dying children. These clowns take Samuel Beckett’s words as their guide: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
The novel follows three siblings, each of whom is forced to relinquish a cherished dream, and must strive to discover new meaning for their lives while grappling with the fundamentalist faith of their Christian parents.
The youngest, 22-year-old Jesus (Zeus), performs as a clown at Chicago’s children’s hospital. Zeus ran away from home at 15 after his parents rejected his sexual orientation. Rebellious Hannah, 12 years older, is skeptical of organized religion. Hannah was the subject of Pountney’s previous novel, The Best Way You Know How. In Sweet Jesus, she moves in with a rugged, loving Newfoundlander. Finally, Connie, the oldest, a wealthy wife and mother, embraces her parents’ faith, but feels spiritually lacking. When the siblings encounter a series of personal crises, they decide to visit a megachurch in Kansas.
Pountney has written a novel that is quietly but fiercely Canadian: From Victoria’s seascapes to Toronto’s cultural kaleidoscope to the forests outside St. John’s, we are enveloped in a montage of gorgeous native landscapes. Pountney’s pen is a rival to the painter’s vivid brush.
The novel runs north and south, as well, highlighting the powerful, magnetic force of an alien American culture. Religion is key: Sweet Jesus is in part a clever, cautionary tale about the fusion of politics and faith in a nation that boasts the separation of church and state. Less felicitously, Pountney examines the yearning for God, the search for meaning in a potentially meaningless world.
The tale unfolds in the weeks leading up to the 2012 American elections – i.e. right now – and the conversation about President Barack Obama, the economy and the Middle East is so contemporaneous that readers feel themselves part of the action. Section one consists of the three main characters’ engaging but barely overlapping stories. We eagerly anticipate the drama of their coming together. But the story literally shifts gears, from a character-driven plot to a road novel – a pilgrimage – featuring a parade of off-beat American characters implausibly inclined to share their beliefs.
I was actually hoping to spend more time with Zeus’s lover, a deeply philosophical clown, a passionate Jew and former Israeli soldier who nevertheless argues non-stop against that country’s “belligerent” politics. Connie’s husband, Harlan, is also compelling. Harlan loses his business and his born-again faith, and is in danger of returning to his slovenly roots.
Connie and Harlan are the central figures through which Pountney explores backsliding and religious doubt. Despite their wealth – or perhaps because of it – the pair no longer experiences the nearness of God. Doubt and disbelief are words that describe the common spiritual condition, and yet Pountney’s representation is disappointingly superficial.
Of course, superficiality is itself a recurring theme. A friend of Hannah’s, for instance, refers to her work with African children as “the biggest thing she has ever done”; i.e. it’s all about her. Still, when it comes to religion, it is hard to determine whether the superficial quality of the conversation stems from Connie’s lack of substance or Pountney’s lack of knowledge.
Sweet Jesus is often funny. As it travels south, it adopts a kitschy flavour. Pountney works in the comic vein of Mennonite writer Miriam Toews (A Complicated Kindness). But she does not display Toews’s level of comfort with religious material.
More successful, spiritually speaking, is the evocation of the sacred in Pountney’s glorious, breathing landscapes, and in the scenes of Zeus, dressed as a clown, performing for terminally ill children, offering “little gifts of sweetness, right in the face of death.”
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.