If you like underlining pleasurable and provocative sentences with a pencil, plan on keeping a sharpener at the ready while reading Jay Shearer’s chapbook The Pulpit vs. The Hole. Gold Line Press understandably selected this story as the winner of their 2011 Chapbook Competition. This smallish booklet held me steadfast. The setting of a Brethren/Mennonite summer camp for adolescents is teeming ground for a fairly high order of microcosmic examination. Poetry pervades the prose and makes the prospect of underlining daunting, distracting and mildly disorienting. Also, I’m a sucker for parenthetical phrases set off with em dashes. By page two I became mopey about the brevity of the book. My desire thumming, I wondered, how can this book possibly give me all I need in such an austere package? Should I even get attached to these characters since our time together is destined to be short? What’s with these chapbooks anyway? Chapbooks are so concentrated that they make everything else seem like watery Kool-Aid. You will need to put down the pencil.
Shearer imbued The Pulpit vs. The Hole with a scattering of themes that scoot and zip around the book like pre-adolescents hotfooting it through the woods at Camp Abednego. Pacifism is a hard sell to the youth of this book. Shearer deals with pacifism through the precocious voice of his youthful narrator, Marty. The slow to grow understanding of the pitfalls of non-participation reminded me of what had seemed a deeply significant process. Marty and Jordan, another camper, struggle to understand the limitations and challenge the boundaries of the adults’ proclaimed pacifism. They seem to be pushing into view some form of active pacifism.
In dealing with pacifism, certain questions arise. The question of all questions, the question meant to discredit pacifism, the question that— asked or unasked— remains central to the demoralization and hindrance of complete alignment with the older forms of un-programmed Quakerism, the Brethren-ism, or the Mennonite-ism. We know the discomfort of the camp counselor as he listens to the disquieting question: “ ‘what would you do in World War Two?’ ” (p. 20). Of course the invocation of such a fundamental injustice comes from the endearingly irascible camper Jordan. Young people live in a constant state of hyperbole, and to invoke World War II is to force the adults to realize that this state of hyperbole, has at times, been a reality. So what, would you like “ ‘just let the Nazis kill all the Jews?’ ” (p. 20). Counselor Dan, answering for the entire population of pacifists — dare he say it? The answer he has to give? The answer that must, but can’t come with conviction, that “ ‘first, as with anyone, we’d try to talk to them’ ” (p. 21). Jordan scoffs quintessentially American indignation at this passive response offered up with only lukewarm sentiment on the floor of a camp cabin.
Pre-adolescents, teens, and college students are all equally likely to flip into full throttle hyperbole, pulling in the horror of the Holocaust and the entirety of World War Two for their analogies, metaphors, and similes. They bandy it about with all the care of a used and defaced textbook that has been provided free of charge from their loathsome public school. Take for example: several overheated high school students in our town recently referencing the new dress code policy which limits girls to Bermuda length shorts; the students on my bus riding to All-State orchestra complaining about the refusal of the bus driver to stop at Wendy’s, instead of McDonalds; the protagonist in the film Drop Dead Gorgeous, referring to the unfair politics and nepotism riddling the Mount Rose Beauty pageant. Perceived infractions of varying degrees but all assumed comparable to a state of National Socialism.
So how to respond to a boy so out of sorts? How should Dan respond to a child, seeking, and full of fight? What to do about the urge to dominate— an urge that if thwarted will force the teen to turn on the nearest adult with a ferocity and intensity that practically demands institutionalization? The counselor responds with what has become the go-to rebuttal of pacifists toward all actively dissenting youth: “ ‘That’s enough . . for now. Who uh . . . who wants to play some kickball?’ ” And the seats in my classes at the Quaker university where I teach are filled with athletes that are here to kick, and punt, and spike, and putt, and charge, and slam, and dunk, and lift, and swing, and run and run and run.
By following the movers and shakers at Camp Abednego around, we learn that urbanization is not to blame for the incorrigibility of the youth. Clandestine meetings in the woods, a boombox blasting the sacrilege of AC/DC, children smoking cigarettes— you get the picture. It is their nature. They urbanize nature. They corrupt each other and regress into the woods. The woods are cool. Wherever the kids are, is cool. The pulpit or the hole. No space is more sacred than any other, if each is seen and experienced with the casual but ever-present reverence the young have for any place where adults are not.
This chapbook is pure, unpasteurized, pulp-heavy juice. Read for the tight and mostly character driven plot, for the delightful voice of Marty in the painful mental throes of adolescence wherein one is consistently misinformed and misunderstood, for the strangeness of secular things satirized through a Christian perspective so inclusive it smacks of an eclectic postmodernism, for the viscerally experienced alienation of the youth from the very adults giving up their time to help the troubled, for the dining hall politics, for the hook-ups with a girl called Maple Sugar, for a really really good time. This chapbook is all rich cream— it’s nothing like Kool-Aid.
Sara Gerot teaches creative writing at William Penn University. She recieved her MFA in Critical Studies from Cal Arts. Her work appears in Black Clock, Pank, Bookslut, make/shift and other various publications.