The collection’s title story is a road novella that features a fatherless young Alabama boy of 14 named Henry Gill, whose catalog of miseries includes an overarching belief in God, a teenager’s raging lust, a bad haircut, worse acne, and a lump on his chest that, due to an overabundance of estrogen, behaves suspiciously like a lactating breast. When his mother’s uncle suffers an aneurysm, she accompanies the old man to London for treatment, leaving Henry free to set out on a vision quest catalyzed by the appearance of Jesus, “who looked a lot like Luke, the scruffy diner-owner on the Gilmore Girls.” Jesus/Luke wants Henry to help Polly Finch, the paralyzed Miracle Girl of Upstate New York, get back inside her body, a task that is for Henry the perfect blend of mystical and kinky.
Henry wanders in the wilderness, looking for signs. He goes from a public golf course to the home of a crackpot professor to an outsider artist’s Scarecrow Farm installed at a dilapidated high school. The artist, Brother Lampey, recruits Henry to be his disciple and help him deliver the Ten Commandments scribbled onto a cardboard refrigerator box to New York City in a wagon pulled by “six or seven shabby-looking goats who smelled very bad and had a dull, evil look in their eyes.” Henry makes it as far as Birmingham before he abandons Lampey and is taken in by a trio of performance artists at a lesbian dive bar. Henry experiences his first erotic encounter that involves the curious lump under his shirt. Instead of being flooded with shame, he realizes “there was some holiness to it after all, maybe not much, but some.”
Your Body Is Changing takes its name from a book Henry’s grandmother gives him, the subtitle of which is A Christian Teen’s Guide to Sexuality. Henry’s quest is very much in the vein of Huck Finn, i.e., every road movie from the late ’70s onward. Pendarvis drags the Southern gothic story into the realm of contemporary grotesque. His protagonists are as biblically fixated as those characters out of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner, but they get their kicks off pop culture. Pendarvis’ perfect reader might be a hyperintelligent plus-size goth chick with Suicide Girl ambitions and Bible quotes on her MySpace page.
Pendarvis’ not-so-lovable losers aren’t sons of FIRPO so much as backwoods relations who, thanks to cable television and the Internet, exult in the same flotsam and jetsam of lowbrow culture that the rest of us do. In Saunders’ milieu, this is cause for outrage, but in Pendarvis’ purview, it provides occasions for humor of the most ribald sort, particularly when the prohibitions of Christianity are brought to bear. The tension between these forces makes lines like “Oh, Laura Prepon [of That ’70s Show fame], you have the wide enticing face of a beauteous harlot. You have a vulva like a velvet boat” screamingly funny, not because they are shocking or vulgar, but because of the moral cost to the loser who dreams them up. Therein lies the love. But is it literature with a capital “L”?
Heavens, no, but Your Body Is Changing is bad and dorky to the bone, and likely the funniest book you’ll read all year.
YOUR BODY IS CHANGING | By JACK PENDARVIS | MacAdam/Cage | 200 pages | $23 hardcover
Jim Ruland is the author of the short-story collection Big Lonesome and the host of Vermin on the Mount, an irreverent reading series in the heart of Chinatown. Jack Pendarvis will read from Your Body Is Changing on Fri., June 22, at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, (323) 660-1175 or www.skylightbooks.com.