Speaking in Tongues
Aaron Gwyn’s stunning yet disturbing debut collection of stories, Dog on the Cross, range far and wide across the Pentecostal landscape of a rural Oklahoma town, exploring voices, visions, faith, sin, depravity, temptation, and dreams, all set during the stark reality of a two and a half month religious revival. They look unflinchingly at the ordinary people who inhabit the small town of Perser. More compellingly, they examine the darker side of their Pentecostal fervor and attempt to explain their faith in God—and their doubts in those very beliefs—in terms that are at one and the same time illuminating and ambiguous.
Perhaps Spencer, the only first person narrator in this collection (and one who might stand in for the author’s voice as well), best describes this conflicted sensibility when he says at the end of the story “Truck”:
No doubt these people are deluded, their worship little more than a drug. But were it possible, if I could allow my mind to stop churning, it’s one I’d consume without hesitation—open my arm to the needle, widen my mouth for the eyedropper or pill. There are even times when I’m convinced I could accept the brainwashing gladly. Provided, of course, it would stand between my eyes and the blindfold, the descending strip of black that, as the years progress, threatens to turn my vision to darkness.
Spencer is only one of a fascinating set of characters Gwyn has assembled in his stories, characters that range from the adolescent struggling with sin and depravity (“Against the Pricks”) to a minister who has lost his gift of speaking in tongues and is adrift in the church he once found so comforting (“In Tongues”) to a woman who loses her ability to sing the praises of the Lord and tries to find an alternative form of communication (“The Offering”).
In a frenetic, fascinating, and wide-ranging one-hour phone interview we had recently, Gwyn explained the origin of these characters and their stories, his obsession with the prose he writes and his belief that human beings have no agency, no choice in the lives they lead or the things that happen to them. He sees language as “a window into an imaginative space” (as one of his influences John Irving does), but he also believes that it is a “virus . . . that enters us and reconfigures us in some fundamental way.” After reading some of these stories, it is easy to see why he believes this.
The vast majority of these stories began for Gwyn with an action that appears to him and on which he spends a great deal of time thinking. He asks questions, fleshes out the narrative, and then decides what kind of humans would inhabit the story. As it happens, these stories, which were Gwyn’s dissertation at the University of Denver, came to him as he thought of his childhood growing up in a small town in Oklahoma. After his father was hit by a train and killed and his mother couldn’t bear the thought of having to raise him by herself, Gwyn landed in the home of his devoutly Pentecostal grandparents.
He preached his first sermon at age 9, gave serious thought to becoming a Pentecostal minister in the Assemblies of God Church (the largest Pentecostal group in the United States) throughout his early teens, and then at age 16 left the church forever. When I asked him what motivated this departure, Gwyn says he “woke up one day and just didn’t believe” anymore. His grandparents fully supported his transformation, and he was soon off to college and the writing career he’s now found.
Set in Perser, Oklahoma, the stories in Dog on the Cross are linked and span the two and a half month period of a revival at the First Pentecostal Church led by the visiting 15 year old evangelist Leslie Snodgrass. Leslie, who travels with him grandmother Delores (a mysteriously controlling figure with an imposing personality that belies her small stature), is the central recurring figure in the stories. Gwyn presents him from a multitude of perspectives through characters whose descriptions of Leslie reveal as much about them as they do about Leslie. It is their interactions with Leslie, and through them ours as well, that form the roadmap that guides the reader through the murky and troubling landscape of these stories.
What is most striking about them, however, is the universality of their themes and the way in which Gwyn tackles fearlessly subjects of immense cultural significance. One need only watch the news (the recent testimonials to the late President Ronald Reagan as the “Great Communicator” for instance) or any number of television shows both comedy and drama to find cultural resonance in these stories. They explore the power of the human voice to mesmerize, to heal, to communicate, and what happens when you lose it (“The Offering” and “In Tongues”). They explore sin, depravity, and temptation (“Against the Pricks”), and they examine the conflicted feelings the religious community has for homosexuality (“Courtship” and “The Backsliders”) and the violent way in which some choose to deal with such moral confusion.
“Dog on the Cross,” the last in the collection and one of best, introduces Deputy Gerald Martin (who grew up in Perser, moved away to work as a U. S. Marshal in Minneapolis, Minnesota for a while, and then moved back after the job overwhelmed him) and Jacob Hollis, a man who moved to Oklahoma from back East and has been treated with abject suspicion by the local Pentecostals ever since he arrived a few years earlier.
The story opens with Deputy Martin being called to the First Pentecostal Church to investigate what Deacon Doyle Withers has found—a beagle puppy nailed to a cross. Gwyn brings together these two men with Delores Snodgrass and begins to come to some resolution of the more vexing issues this collection raises.
In trying to solve the violent crime against the innocent puppy, Martin has to interview Hollis, whom the deacon believes committed the crime, and Delores. In a delicate interspersing of narrative threads, Gwyn juxtaposes the experiences and beliefs of these two characters with Martin’s own conflicted feelings about small-town life and the Pentecostals to offer a subtle commentary on morality, personal responsibility, and the often difficult search for contentment that all humans seem to crave.
In the large majority of these stories, Aaron Gwyn writes with an understated and graceful prose about some of the most culturally complex issues in America today, and he does it all from the front steps of a Pentecostal church in a small town in Oklahoma. Now that’s talent to sing about.