Josiah Hesse’s first novel Carnality: Dancing on Red Lake is terrifying. Mixing childhood nostalgia, nightmarish surrealism, hallucinatory anxiety and pop and evangelical cultural history, this coming-of-age story pulls readers through three generations of religious abuse, mental illness and drug addiction.
The author, who will be reading from his novel tonight in Denver at Syntax Psychic Opera, was raised in Iowa, where he grew up in an evangelical family obsessed with demonic possession, the impending return of Christ and apocalyptic iconography.
As a kid, fully immersed in Jesus-land, Hesse was haunted by the idea that evil spirits were around him at all times. He was engaged in constant “spiritual warfare.” His parents, who were out of the house a lot, would leave him at home, where he suffered through panic attacks and feared his thoughts would open up a door for demons. It took him years to admit to himself that he had quit believing in God and even longer to take the Lord’s name in vain – something he now relishes doing.
His book’s protagonist, Jacob, is a monstrous creature born from Hesse’s childhood woes. Jacob narrates his own all-too-human memories of growing up with dysfunctional parents – unhappy people suffering an unfortunate, abusive marital collision between hippie liberation and doomsday Christianity – who mostly neglect their kids. Carnality also explores Jacob’s parents’ coming-of-age. Through their story, Hesse traces the lines between revolutionary, drug-addled 60s subculture and the rightwing, evangelical movement that has defined the last 50 years of political strife in the United States.
As Jacob tells his family’ story, he lives unhinged on an island in the middle of an Iowa lake, squatting a burned out motel, smoking weed, eating hunted animals and running around naked. He is the essential Christian-turned-skeptic, stripped of his spiritual defenses and suffering alone in his memories and self-obsession. He’s without God, without family and without community.
Great coming-of-age stories (think Stephen King’s novella The Body, which the movie Stand By Me is based on, or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) merge all the hope that comes with being young with the realization that youthful optimism is doomed. Carnality has that tone. Because this book leaves a lot deliciously unresolved, readers are sure to get hooked and hope Hesse finishes the next five volumes of this series as soon as possible.
Hesse, who is releasing his novel the same way a punk band organizes its own bar show, has put together an impressive lineup of readers and musicians including A. Tom Collins’ lead singer Aaron Collins, Andy Thomas author of Hell is in New Jersey and Suspect Press editor Ken Arkind. Roger Green will play music while Hesse performs from his book. John Wenzel of The Denver Post will interview Hesse live. After the show, there will be a dance party at Lipgloss. The free show starts at 7 p.m. at 554 South Broadway. Copies of the book will be available for $12. For more information about Hesse’s writing, go to his website.
Photo credit: Francisco Goya, Witches’ Sabbath