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A Small, Dark Miracle of a Book: Peter Stenson’s Thirty-Seven

By Katharine Coldiron.

Peter Stenson, Thirty-Seven (Dzanc, 2018)

How do you recommend an experience you never want to have again? How does a film critic say, for instance, that Requiem for a Dream is a must-watch, when it’s infused with such ugliness and despair? When a piece of art is unapologetically dark and unpleasant but of objectively excellent quality, finding a way to push audiences toward it is a challenge.

In this vein is Thirty-Seven, by American novelist Peter Stenson, an intense, exceptionally well-made, unforgettable book. I loved every word, but I can’t suggest it’s an enjoyable read. It’s a horror story without ghosts or beasts, a book that continually evokes Rorschach, in Watchmen, saying “as dark as it gets.” Meticulously constructed, Hitchcockian in its layering of tension, Faulknerian in its network of ideas, wise and strange as an angel, black as a night in a dungeon. Certainly one of the best books I read in 2018. But difficult to recommend. At least, not if you’re looking for a comfortable ride.

The narrator of Thirty-Seven is Mason Hues, a young man with an abnormal adolescence. At fifteen, he gets tangled up with a small cult, which has grown out of a support group for people who have lost a loved one to cancer. The cult believes that the way to enlightenment involves extreme suffering, being cared for in the midst of suffering, and caring for others as they suffer. Healthy people themselves, they take self-regulated doses of the cancer chemotherapy drug Cytoxan, which sickens them deliberately. Other elements of their belief system generally revolve around suffering and detachment, but in a much more direct and toxic way than in Buddhism. The leader of the cult is named One, the second member to join is Two, and so forth until our narrator, Thirty-Seven.

The cult predictably progresses toward illegal action and murder, and then dissolves after a Helter Skelter-like crisis, leaving Thirty-Seven and One as the only surviving members. One goes to prison. Thirty-Seven is given a new identity in exchange for federal testimony and sent out to live in the world. This is where the novel begins: with Thirty-Seven trying to adapt to adult life outside his bizarre, but nurturing, family of choice. He gets a job at a thrift store and falls into a symbiotic friendship with Talley, the young woman who owns it. He and Talley re-form the cult themselves, as One and Two. Their alliance declines into obsession and insanity, and they become both victims and perpetrators of horrifying street crime. The novel’s conclusion, and a final scene at the prison where One is held, throw everything we’ve read thus far into doubt.

This may sound tawdry, as if it’s blending marketable true-crime elements with vulnerable characters in order to titillate a jaded reading audience. But the actions of the book rest on a dense bed of philosophy and beliefs about the purpose of human life. Thirty-Seven’s narration feels like it comes from a perspective of actual enlightenment, as if he can really understand what goes on in any human mind at any time. His insights include: “The only reason a person listens to another person’s story is to see how it relates to him, or at the most to see how he would’ve reacted under the same circumstances.” “This is what the American dream has always looked like…Every person is steeped in want, and this is applauded. It’s aptitude. It’s go-get-‘er-ness. It’s hunger.” “Humans are all fundamentally the same. We are a desk of control switches in a recording studio. Our only differences are the volume levels and mixing effects. Our desires are the beating drums. Our choruses are the unshakable beliefs of our selves.”

Ultimately, Thirty-Seven’s perspective is cynical and grieving but not misanthropic. He believes that people have lost the ability to discern what’s important. He misses the vulnerability brought on by One’s methods of living authentically. His attempts to replicate the acceptance and certainty he felt in the cult are extreme, and unhealthy, but they come from the certainty that there is a better way to live than thoughtless consumption and medicated sleep.

The book possesses an intricate infrastructure, a constellation of powerful ideas repeated and recombined over and over: fathers, human touch, honesty, illness and death, father-death, death while being touched, honesty through illness, fulfilment through illness, fulfilment through fathers, so on. Stenson further embroiders the narrative’s details every time these ideas repeat. The pace of the book is magisterial, rotating slowly between past and present; a few relatively small time periods are explored to fathoms of depth.

The novel’s idea-infrastructure is upsettingly convincing. It is easy to accept Thirty-Seven’s enlightenment, and to be upset at the doctors trying to coax him back into normal American life. I don’t endorse healthy human beings voluntarily taking chemotherapy to somehow be closer to truth; that’s entirely crazy. But, as they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. Finding truth close to death is an old, old idea.

In any event, a book that ties the reader up in such moral knots is a book worth reading, no matter how displeasing the reading experience may be. And it is. The characters’ illnesses are well-described, their depravities carefully delineated, their crimes docketed without fail. Enlightenment through suffering necessarily entails suffering, and this book bears a lot of it. Plus, the ideas in it are so heavy, and so imbricated, that reading the book is an intense, blinkered experience. Even if you’ve put the book down, your emotions haven’t really let go, and your mind keeps working at its contradictions.

Since a book like Thirty-Seven requires so much investment from the reader, its author damn well better know what he’s doing. Stenson does; his craft is as finely honed as a sushi knife. He is capable of registers ranging from Talley’s like-whatever delivery to a psychiatrist’s dry patience. The dialogue is sharp and rapid-fire, the kind that’s realistic without being burdened by idiom:

She says, “Are you a good worker?”

“I’ve never had a job.”

“Jesus, you aren’t making this easy.”

“I imagine I’m a good worker.”

“I can give you like two shifts a week, tops twelve hours. No benefits. Shitty pay. But you’ll get to play with clothes.”

She winks. I smile.

The twist at the story’s peak is unpredictable, but not absurd, and it makes the novel into a puzzle-box without making it gimmicky. Stenson has written a small, dark miracle of a book.

 Dark being the operative word, however. Such a book is not for every reader, no matter how stellar it is. I don’t even know where to start with trigger warnings for Thirty-Seven; just about any upsetting thing you can imagine happens. Nevertheless, it’s incisive, absorbing, persuasive, and impossible to forget. Just be sure to have some cute dog videos lined up when you’re through reading for the day.

Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, LARB, the Guardian, the Kenyon Review, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com and tweets @ferrifrigida.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 28th, 2019.