HENRY’S CHAPEL, a novel by Graham Guest, reviewed by Christopher Lura

If we are to take Graham Guest’s new book Henry’s Chapel as a novel—and it is a novel, let’s be clear—it might be described like this: it is a story of a group of people—of a family, for lack of a better word—living off the grid somewhere in the backwoods of East Texas. There are children—Henry, an autistic boy haunted by the ghost of a deceased twin sister, Emily (the deceased twin sister), and Maybelline, Henry’s new baby sister. To these children, there are several parents—there is “Mother,” Uncle Avery, and Royd. Together, they make up a very ill-fated group of kin whose lives have taken shape within a harsh inheritance of moral deprivation, mental illness, and abuse, including incest and even murder.

These individuals live together on a rural “compound,” far from modern society. Here, what is taboo to the outside world is simply a fact of life. Here, when babies are born, no one calls a doctor. Instead, they go to the house of a neighbor who has helped with this sort of thing before. There is no registration of the newborn child with agencies of public health, social services, or taxation. Indeed, there is no contact in general with “official people,” as Uncle Avery calls them, and the children do not—though it hardly needs to be said—attend any kind of school.

But these individuals, it turns out, are not just characters in a novel—or at least the narrator does not present them to us that way. In fact, to the narrator, these individuals are actually the characters of a film, and their story and experiences, which the narrator carefully recounts to us, are the plot of that film. This film—in which Henry, Emily, Maybelline, Mother, Uncle Avery, and Royd are the main characters—is called Lawnmower of a Jealous God, and it was directed by one Alphonse Noella. We never learn much about Noella, but he exists in the story as a sort of god-like figure, and the narrator often questions Noella’s motivations for having created such a group of characters whose lives are, almost unflaggingly, brutally injured by an inheritance of psychosis and toxic human nature.

The film’s plot—which is rich in campy symbolism and B-movie tropes—is relatively straightforward. One day, Royd shows up at Henry and Mother’s house. Mother apparently already knows Royd from the past and Royd moves in with them, quickly revealing himself to be an abusive, psychotic boyfriend. Henry spends much of his time thinking back to Emily, the sister who may or may not have been murdered years earlier, and Henry can never quite keep the pain of this psychic search separate from his daily life with Royd and Mother. The three of them live about a stone’s throw from Uncle Avery—Henry’s biological father—who Henry sees now and then, and with whom his relations remain psychically loaded. Before long, Mother and Royd produce Maybelline, and over time we see Royd inflict on Maybelline the kind of sexual abuse that appears to be at the blackened heart of these characters’ unrelenting trauma.

Although Henry and his family’s daily life is partly normal—they eat dinner together, go on a family trip to Carlsbad caverns—the story is constantly circling around this abuse and its traumas. In one scene, for example, we see Henry wandering at night with a flashlight through the woods, following what appears to be the ghost of his dead sister along the darkened tree line. In the second half of the novel, we witness Henry, an adolescent at this point, engaging in some backyard bestiality with Uncle Avery’s dog. In both of these scenes, the narrator asks us to consider the psychology behind the narrative moment: why did the film’s director present the scene as he did? And what are we to make of these decisions? Should we judge Henry for abusing the dog? Or does his young age and psychiatric handicap relieve him of moral culpability?

Over time, Royd, because of his age and relationship to Henry’s mother, is forced to take on a quasi-parental roll to Henry, and he shows Henry how to mow the lawn and even takes him along on one of his contracting jobs to blow insulation. But in keeping with Royd’s personality, these occasions are more opportunities to inflict humiliation than educate. In the face of this, Henry retreats into his private world. Mother turns out to be generally helpless to protect herself and her children against Royd’s violence, and Henry, a child operating with impaired motor skills in a dangerous world, is the broken glass through which we read the consequences of this disturbed culture.

It is difficult to come up with an easy comparison for this book in contemporary fiction. Many aspects of the book and the characters’ behavior—including the southern setting and disturbing characters—will remind us of early Cormac McCarthy, particularly Outer Dark and Child of God. But unlike most novels in the traditions of McCarthy or Faulkner or the Southern Gothic, Guest’s narrator is steeped in continental theory, and makes regular analytical detours into discussions of Quine, Nietzsche, and Jung to try to understand these characters and the implications of their brutal existence. Indeed, like in David Lynch’s movies—to which the narrator also makes explicit reference—many of the book’s scenes read like case studies from Freud’s Lost Texas Files.

But in other ways, Henry’s Chapel, despite its meta-narrative structure and intensive experimentation, fits squarely into key strains of the American novel—this is most notable in its heavy reliance on its use of the Old and New Testament to turn Henry’s story into a fable of human nature itself. The novel’s opening is illustrative—a striking retelling of the Book of Genesis: here, instead of God breathing air into the world and giving life, God simply coughs up a glob of nasal drip—a loogy, to be precise—and spits it out, thus creating what we know today as humanity.

These references to the Bible appear throughout the novel, both metaphorically, and explicitly, particularly regarding incest. At one point, the narrator even takes a moment to highlight for us how, in the Bible, just after God had created the world—when you could count the number of humans around on one hand—humanity would have relied exclusively on incest to get those early family trees going. The narrator doesn’t present this as a “gotcha” critique of one of the Bible’s many illogicalities. Instead, Guest’s narrator describes it more matter-of-factly—as a simple point we should keep in mind: Incest leads to genetic deformations in offspring, and child rape undermines emotional health for generations. If we’re all formed from the children of Eve and Adam, then child abuse and genetic disturbance is the origin story of Judeo-Christian culture.

The story of Henry, Maybelline, Emily, Mother, Royd, Avery, and their unfortunate dogs ends in a way that could be called predictable but that is notable nevertheless—there is an unexpected encounter with an “official person.” This interaction brings the ethics of modern society down upon this isolated Texas culture: suddenly we see this family as outcasts from “society.” For us, it is a moment of catharsis. We can now take comfort in the idea that this compound and its mentally ill inhabitants are geographically and socially distinct from the modern world where people make reasonable and empathic decisions, where domestic abuse is denounced, incest is illegal, and where child abuse, child murder, and child rape are the rare exception rather than the norm.

It’s not quite clear how the author wants us to understand this sudden intrusion of modern, almost self-congratulatory ethics. Did the author intend to provide some late breaking affection for humanity, a suggestion that despite the traumas that reiterate themselves like a demented virus across generations, redemption is possible? That outside of this kind of backwards community off the grid, there is, in fact, a better world?

It’s hard to know. It is an optimistic twist at the end of a novel whose characters depict a more repulsive baseline for the human species. But what else is there, the author might be saying, if we don’t, at the end of the day, at least try to lean on the idea that modern civilization—with its rules, laws, and morals—might help us at least condemn, if not extirpate, the sins that have, biblically speaking, been with us from the beginning?

Henry’s Chapel, by Graham Guest. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, February 2022. 236 pages. $20.00, paper.

Christopher Lura has published reviews in several publications, including Rain Taxi, Jacket2, and The Rumpus, among others. He has previously worked for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and University of California Press and currently works as an independent editor and writer. Books he has worked on are regularly published by well known publishers including Oxford University Press, University of California Press, Hachette/Twelve Books, among others.

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