[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Milk': God and Man in Brooklyn

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Mon Apr 18 19:32:34 UTC 2005

'Milk': God and Man in Brooklyn

By Darcey Steinke.
131 pp. Bloomsbury. $17.95.

    Darcey Steinke's new novel, ''Milk,'' is a furtive little book, a
    kinky Christian fable about three Brooklyn outcasts obsessed with God
    and sex.

    Mary, an unstable mystic, masturbates with holy ardor, turning a
    prayer -- ''Come, Lord Jesus, have mercy on me'' -- into a lascivious
    incantation. Walter, a left-wing Episcopal priest who has been demoted
    to an outer-borough church for coming on to a teenager at Manhattan's
    Church of the Heavenly Rest, still desires boys; he spends his nights
    trolling gay bars and his days visiting Web sites ''for theologically
    minded adherents of S-and-M.''

    And John, an exclaustrated monk who moves to Brooklyn Heights, turns
    to a prostitute whose number he finds in The Village Voice. When he
    wonders why God has forsaken him, the answer is, ''So you can know
    yourself'' -- carnally, in John's interpretation.

    At 131 pages, ''Milk'' completes its character studies using prayers,
    sex scenes and hallucinatory descriptions of the characters' shared
    neighborhood in winter. But if there's something suspicious about so
    heavy a novel being built on so little, the effect of the
    transpositions in ''Milk'' is unexpectedly exciting -- a throwback to
    the sordid religiosity of Jean Genet. Steinke has summoned a state of
    mind, the one required for both prayer and masturbation, that is
    abject, asocial, and she does not shy from giving it full

    The other major character in ''Milk'' is Mary's child, a nameless
    infant boy. Conceived with a man known only as ''her husband,'' the
    baby is unweaned; Mary savors the practice of nursing in rarefied
    terms. But the mystification of mother's milk -- along with the
    general mystification of motherhood -- is lost on her husband, who is
    blind to God's ubiquity and concomitantly indifferent to sex.

    Instead of sex, the husband cares about sexiness. And this, the
    novel's most prosaic concern -- the horror of being married to a
    hipster -- is also its most pressing. Steinke's representation of the
    pot-smoking jackass who can't seem to come home from parties is
    unsparing, at times gossipy; it definitely dips below the literary
    tone of the rest of the novel. But it's also tart. At one point,
    having opened a disappointing Christmas present, the stoned husband
    appears irritated, and Mary struggles to respond:

    ''She tried to think of something to say, but with him everything was
    either Good, i.e., sexy, funny, cool, or Bad, i.e., emotionally
    painful, boring, a hassle. You either GOT IT or you didn't GET IT.
    There was no reason to discuss.''

    Steinke's use of shouting capitals suggests a fresh argument, as the
    idea of revealed hipness -- hipness that cannot be arrived at through
    reason -- maddens Mary. Fragile Mary, after all, is forced to live in
    a particularly profane house, surrounded by her husband's ''Star
    Wars'' kitsch and other artifacts, including a ceramic unicorn and a
    Jesse Ventura figurine. The deployment of this household aesthetic
    affects Mary the way the lowered lights affect Ingrid Bergman's
    character in ''Gaslight'': it confounds her sense of what's proper or
    beautiful, and eventually drives her insane.

    The contemptuous, forthright representation of the husband can only be
    appreciated in hindsight, when the character disappears from the
    narrative altogether and Mary moves on to a heady affair with John,
    who is more shadowy but less compelling than the terrible husband. No
    longer infuriated, Mary becomes strange: having suffered on and off
    from voices in her head, she takes to hiding in closets for long
    sessions of prayer.

    Walter worries about her, but he has his own troubles. His church is
    in financial trouble, and he's suffered his own heartbreak and sexual
    humiliations. In the best passage of the book, the priest tries to
    summarize the tragedy of existence, even as he's preoccupied with a
    cute kid who has just snubbed him.

    ''That people you loved died was unacceptable,'' he thinks. And that
    people you slept with ''wanted you to vanish was unacceptable. But
    really it was mostly that people you loved died -- this was completely

    Walter's distraction from sermonizing is amateurish and sweet, but
    freewheeling moments like this are rare; this is a very solemn novel,
    determinedly unwitty. More than once, its emphasis on what it deems
    sacramental -- blood, tears, milk -- raises the possibility that it
    contains a Christian allegory. The hermeneutics that informed the
    literary criticism of the 1950's come to mind: Is there a Via Dolorosa
    in Walter's path through the gay bars? Is John's prostitute the
    Magdalene? Who is the Christ figure here?

    Though sexy and cool in its own way, ''Milk'' risks raising these
    musty, shameful questions, and the novel is all the more eccentric and
    enthralling for that.

    Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The Times.

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