Dale Peck’s new novel, Night Soil, is at once mythical and grounded in American realism, unafraid to peel back layers of American convention to expose the racial, economic, and psychological warfare beneath. Judas Stammers, the heir to a complicated fortune, is a young white gay man stuck in the South, stuck in his family, stuck on the wrong side of history in America. Judas’s coal magnate ancestor, Marcus Stammers, was a Scottish immigrant who took advantage of the Native American genocide (Trail of Tears, Indian Removal Act) in the 1830s by purchasing a large swath of cheap Cherokee acreage and transforming it into a mining fiefdom.
At the beginning of the novel, Judas lives with his potter mother, Dixie, in an apartment crowded with detritus from her past life, the perfectly symmetrical pots she sells for millions, and expensive artifacts from around the world. Judas, realizing early that his aptitude for creating art is nothing like his mother’s, makes himself useful with a scrub brush instead, cementing his role as caretaker and ardent admirer at an early age.
Judas is both mythological hero and family historicist, forced to reckon with his place in a family that has wrought so much destruction to the land and the people who have had the misfortune of living on it. He is the end of the Stammers lineage; his very presence the result of a family betrayal committed by his mother. Born with a port-wine birthmark that covers the left side of his body and requires near-constant care, Judas’s body makes it impossible for him to disappear into the comfortable existence that is the birthright of every white teenage boy. Anyone who has spent time in the closet for fear of violence or death understands the importance of blending.
Judas and his mother’s world is small; they clear paths through the clutter and yell loving insults at each other from across the room. Their bond is unshakable but grows more and more complicated, especially when Dixie begins to leave her son for long periods of time and Judas attends a puzzling, possibly magical Academy nearby, falling half in love with his classmates while hiding his body away during anonymous sex in a nearby rest stop.
This book is difficult to categorize. I can’t remember the last time I felt such satisfaction in learning obscure vocabulary, certain that Peck would unhand me at the end of the book with a new depth of understanding. Because Judas’s own story unfolds in the claustrophobic morass of his family’s history, I found myself caught up in a physical sensation of his attempts at constructing an identity that encompasses the magnitude of his family’s history. It’s harrowing; it’s boring. It’s shameful; it’s survivalist.
Born with a port-wine birthmark that covers the left side of his body and requires near-constant care, Judas’s body makes it impossible for him to disappear into the comfortable existence that is the birthright of every white teenage boy.
In one chapter, the narrative assumes the mantle of a competent natural and cultural history of the Appalachians before careening into an inventory of a hoarder’s living quarters. In another chapter, an architectural lesson in bricklaying gives way to a meditation on gardening and the human desire to exercise control over land masses. The narrative is rewarded by Peck’s attention to detail in these sections, but it is always a relief to return to the wry, weary voice of Judas as he works to make sense of his sexuality, his relationship with his mother, and the curse of family knowledge.
Thrust into a world that works hard to forget and discard its disgraceful history, Judas is a living reminder of the deplorable sins of his forefathers. He is also a living, breathing, tenderhearted teenager in search of kindness and acceptance. He’s a hero willing to look the worst of humanity in the eye, uncover his past, and move into an uncertain future in which his questions have no easy answers.
I’m white, of primarily German, Czech, and Irish ancestry. For much of my life, I took solace in the fact that my white ancestors arrived after the end of the Civil War and were too poor to do much of anything but survive the central Texas summers until somebody managed to get a college education. Both my grandfathers refused to teach their native languages to my parents for fear they might grow up with an unwanted accent. My parents left their tiny segregated towns as soon as they could. They became public educators in a thriving city outside of San Antonio, squarely situated in their progressive, anti-racist, Catholic values.
Judas Stammers, the heir to a complicated fortune, is a young white gay man stuck in the south, stuck in his family, stuck on the wrong side of history in America.
My Texas public school education positioned my white family’s history as hardscrabble proof of the American Dream. They came with nothing, worked hard in America, they earned their places in the middle class. I felt blissfully blameless for American racial unrest, ready to express meaningful twenty-something opinions as only an innocent outsider could. My family hadn’t been slave owners. My family hadn’t been traders. They’d worked on farms. In grocery stores. I was 40 before the stories I’d been taught stopped making sense.
My family’s success had only been possible because they had matriculated into a working system that had been built for their white success. They’ve been as much a part of building the racial history of Texas as the original slave owners and the fighters for the Republic of Texas: buying and selling Native American and Mexican land for the past century, demanding the cheap food migrant workers have picked and packaged, paying into systems of mass incarceration that kill innocent folks on the regular.
I’ve been working to uncover the ways in which my particular white family has been complicit in American racist practices. I’m interested in the complicated, unconscious ways in which white people ignore or simply erase their own histories. I’m interested in personal responsibility, in the unintended consequences of technological progress and lawful genocide. Questions of this nature are the beating heart of Night Soil, and it’s as complex, distressing, and surprising as anything you will read this year.