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Mississippi Madness

The beautiful word ruination provides a kind of unofficial subtitle for this impressive, short, fragmented first novel. Populated by as fucked-up a dynasty of Deep South “white trash” as a reader will likely ever want to meet, this multigenerational family history is related mostly in exquisitely (and often uncomfortably) telling vignettes composed of superbly lucid, pared-down sentences. The book also has old photos, passages of broken thoughts and song, and alleged excerpts from something titled “The Confederate Ball Program Guide 1938” collaged into it, giving the novel the feel of a damaged scrapbook that has been torn up and then partially reassembled. The keenly observed, succinct prose is bookended, and occasionally interrupted, by other kinds of material — like short lyric rants that seem to disassociate and then regroup, as though the narrator’s consciousness were splintering and then fitting itself back together again.

By turns trancey and disarmingly straightforward, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution illustrates its saga of familial pathology without dramatizing, histrionics or a drop of self-pity. The novel’s unswerving accuracy gives rise to an evenhanded compassion, and a welcome absence of passing judgment. Readers are given an insider’s (a child’s) experience of life in a milieu in which alcoholism, mental illness, racism, child abuse, superstition, misogyny, poverty and flagrant sexual misbehavior (not an exhaustive list) are standard, traditional, entrenched.

The predominantly straight-faced approach to the intense drama of the material works perfectly. The fact that these daily insanities are presented unblinkingly and rather calmly most of the time, as though a steady diet of outrage is quite unremarkable, makes complete sense. In the narrator’s world, such lunacy has been passing for normal for generations. The strange, airless, claustrophobic obsessions of childhood are rendered expertly here, as are the poetics of a near drowning, the special sway the supernatural holds in parts of the South, the slovenly and deadly grind of long-haul alcoholism, and much more. Like exotic artifacts from some long-destroyed civilization such as Pompeii or Troy, the remnants of the bourbon-soaked, incest-tinged, unhinged lives in the novel appear at once foreign, familiar and all too human.

THE PINK INSTITUTION | By SELAH SATERSTROM | Coffee House Press | 134 pages $15 paperback