Salvation is the sometimes funny, sometimes eerie story of the coming of age of Crane Cavanaugh, a budding scientist. Crane narrates her early life with a rich awareness of the natural world and her own precarious spot in it. Raised below the poverty line in Arnold, Iowa, by depraved adults who’ve given up the life of charlatans on the gospel circuit, Crane’s first-person account traces her experiences from disfiguration in the womb to well-deserved elevation in the halls of academe. Along the way, there are surprises and reversals. Crane is separated from the sister and brother who tried to protect her in infancy and assigned by welfare workers to life in a convent. Here, science is taught directly from the Bible. Crane rebels. Her belligerence causes the nuns to put her up for adoption. Reborn as Princess Hopkins by an adoring, middle-class, adoptive mother, Crane develops a satisfying relationship of admiration and respect with a public school science teacher who becomes her mentor. Princess/Crane inhabits parallel worlds, using her scientific precocity and formidable intellect to juggle sobering deficits in nurture, stunted emotional development, and the inevitable disasters that derive from sadomasochistic sexual imprinting—yet she somehow retains an inner continuity that remains unfazed, unjudgmental, and cheerful. Witty and richly intelligent, arch and earnest, Salvation has a Dickensian narrative reach, an empathetic heart, and a naturalist's eye for both the vagaries and the logic of human nature.
"Crane is also, by way of Nevai’s humor and preternatural stylistic gifts, the kind of self-effacing, wickedly wise, subtly superior organic genius that we all long for in a protagonist...Salvation’s impossibly satisfying pearls begin arriving like rocks in an avalanche—one barely leaving its impression on you before another lands."
—Rachel Rosenblit, ELLE
"Nevai's subtly barbed latest (following Seriously) portrays the secret agonies of an Iowa girl rescued from neglect by a loving foster family. Born in 1950 to a half-Indian prostitute living in a squatter's shack with a married “evangelist and healer” and his wife, Crane Cavanaugh suffers the disfigurement of her mother's attempted abortion as well as the privations of being unwanted and poor. Along with her devoted older half-siblings, Jima and Little Duck, she manages to scrape by: a kindly developer, Sam Fanelli, who is transforming farmland into postwar suburbia, feeds the children from his lunchbox. Eventually seized by the state, separated from her siblings and farmed out to a childless Methodist couple, Crane's identity changes completely—a change that is the crux of the book's meditation on chance, identity and circumstance. With skillful, wicked irony, Nevai poignantly evokes Crane's desperate childhood and fragile transformation, and creates a cast of sympathetic, memorable grotesques."
"What a fantastic novel. Salvation is an absolute knockout. I read it without stopping and fell in love by the end of the day."
—Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones
"Lucia Nevai has written a tale with the savage wit and gothic plot twists of Katharine Dunn's Geek Love. Each page contains a shifting ratio of laughter and horror that will stop your heart for whole seconds; each sentence is a work of art. Nevai's young narrator, Crane, is a character I would follow anywhere."
—Karen Russell, author of St. Lucy's School for Girls Raised by Wolves
"In Salvation, Nevai presents a variety of characters in language precise and pristine, providing a marvelous juxtaposition to the imperfections and complexities of the lives so keenly observed. We cheer for this strange and endearing protagonist from the beginning of the book to the end."
—Elizabeth Strout, author of Abide with Me
"This is 21st century fiction, perfectly rendered. Sometimes, it's so beautiful, it breaks your heart."
"From laugh-out-loud hilarious to searingly poignant, Nevai crafts a powerful story about family, growing up, loss and redemption. Crane never loses sight of her own uncertain place in the world, and this honest book brings to life one of the most fiercely intelligent, delightfully quirky and strangely beautiful protagonists in contemporary fiction. You will reach the last page craving more of Crane Cavanaugh."
—Laura Di Giovine, New Pages.com
"Nevai has an amazing way with words that translated exceedingly well to novel-length fiction. Salvationis proof of that."
"Nevai skillfully balances the bizarre with the everyday. She has a way of bringing out the way life often lands somewhere in between. Crane is a unique character, with some elements of the grotesque, but Nevai manages to pull it off with believability and poignancy."
With abject, slavish desire, with offhand, sloppy curiosity, with gratitude, with sedation, I was accidentally engendered. Never say the word rid around me. My mother tried to get rid of me. My face to this day is deformed, my forehead bumpy, puffy, and white as mold. Her attempt was halfhearted; her method unknown. Where do I feel it? In the lungs. It comes back in winter when I wheeze. It comes back when I feel cowardly. There’s pressure, slight at first, and frontal, then heavier and from all sides, as if I’m in a crushing machine that will reduce my mass to a minus number. Through it all, I’m hyperventilating, sucking oxygen as hard as I can, turning and twisting in my close, red space, inhaling all the Os I can find. Oxygen, that cool, sweet, slender thread of life I love. Oooooooooooooooo.
She failed. She let me live. With my big head softened up like that, I tried to go easy on her when I was born. Now, I failed. She pushed me out to the tune of a thousand and one blue curses. Given a choice, I would have stayed inside. She was glad I was out of her life and on my own. She put on lipstick and left the hospital.
It was an unpleasant interval. Where was her smell? I missed the sound of her voice echoing down through her innards to me. I’d grown used to its tone, its twang. Sometimes she sang. I missed our drugs, whatever they were. The rubber nipple held begrudgingly by the nurse delivered squeaky-clean nutrition. I refused it at first, looking for whatever it was I was used to. The nurse felt miffed and cut me off. Lacking our tranquilizers, disgusted by formula, I could have used a cigarette. No luck there either. People to the right and left of me were bawling. I gave it a try. Out came half a coo. I didn’t have the lungs for bellowing, thanks to you-know-who. I gave up wanting anything. That seemed to work. My first successful approach to life! I would remember it always.
Sunlight was entrancing. Neither too simple nor too complex. It was substanceless, yet it filled up the four pink nursery walls, entering the room in shafts, structures it accepted from the windows interspersed along the wall. Motes and flecks suspended in the air were illuminated by it as if they were valuable.There seemed to be more than enough of it outside the window. Sunlight: warm, silky, intelligent, unlimited, impartial, kind, unfathomable. I waved my fist in it, stirring it up, introducing a new smell that wrinkled my nose, the smell of bleach. All around me, people were wailing. I blew one bubble. I felt inadequate, envying their freedom, wondering what it would be like to throw back your head and let loose, test-driving a pair of healthy, new, red-blooded lungs.
Lying in the nursery, busy with its light, sniffing the air for any hint of lipstick, my ears ringing with the racket around me, a part of me loses heart. An institution is colder and emptier than a person, even if that person is sick of you.
I assume things. X is out there. I want her in here. I may not get what I want. I might get Y, the nurse I don’t want. The greatest question underlying all of this is time, the time between wanting and getting, between X and Y. I wait. Waiting means becoming sidelong in time so it carries you along without shearing off something you might need later. It works: I feel loved by the light. The womb was dark. I could never tell if I was dreaming my dream in there or hers.
Outside of the hospital entrance, parked at the curb, is a bluecar. My mother in her red dress must have descended to the lobby in the elevator in a state of intolerable withdrawal. She must have settled her beautiful bottom down into the soft front seat of the roadster at the curb. She’s counting the minutes. She must have turned to the man at the wheel with something of a promise, something of a plea. She sends the two children in the backseat up the hospital steps for me.
My brother is seven, my sister five. He’s comfortable in his skin, she’s ashamed of hers. Douglas Cavanaugh, Jr., that’s his given name. They call him Little Duck. He has that kind of beauty that’s startling in a man. I don’t mean the baby-face cuteness. I mean beauty, the Jesus kind, that makes people want to follow you and devour you.
My sister Jima wears a yellow dress. Buttons are missing. Her shoulders twist in place as she tries not to take up space. Her sweetness and allure are sidelong. Her long, brown, dusty ponytail is half out of the clasp. Her teeth are crooked, turninga corner suddenly in the middle of her smile, like Big Duck’s before the dentures. Her pale gray eyes can see for miles. Her eyebrows are dusty; her elbows and forearms are dusty. Her knees, her feet. Everything about her is dusty. Where we live, the wind blows grit from the played-out gravel mine into our pores. The air sifts fine black silt from the cornfields into our hair. Silent, dusty and barefooted, they stand there looking very much like children who don’t belong in public. The dirt and their bare feet erase how good-looking they are. This is the first public building they’ve seen. It’s quiet for its size and solidity. The unnatural hush in the halls seems to help along the doctors and nurses with the importance of their jobs. Little Duck and Jima are used to a floor that’s soft and pliant, built of hand-sawn planks of pine. This floor’s hard and cold, gleaming granite, rank with disinfectant. Little Duck lopes across it. Jima moves forward uncertainly, step by step, looking down at her feet so she doesn’t make a mistake.
They pass a row of chairs, somber, upholstered things meant for visitors. A man is sitting in one, reading a magazine, smoking, flicking ashes into a large, strong, freestanding steel ashtray. There’s the whooshing sound of a great weight falling evenly through the air, accompanied by a humming that gets louder and louder. The humming terminates abruptly in a hydraulic sigh. A pair of steel doors glides apart, disappearing into the lobby wall. Large, clean, well-dressed people are standing there, trapped inside a steel box recessed in the wall, though they don’t seem upset. In fact, they seem bored. My brother and sister jump out of their path as they walk into the lobby. “Goin’ up?” The black man in the green suit who’s driving this thing is talking to Little Duck. The man sits on a half stool that unfolds from the elevator wall. His right hand holds half a steering wheel, his left hand holds a knob that opens and shuts the big steel doors with folding Xs. His white hair is tightly curled like pubic hair. Little Duck and Jima stare at the pink skin of the man’s gums and palms, wondering if the black color will eventually wear off the rest of him too. The man begins to laugh merrily, a skittering laugh full of “K” sounds as air is scraped against the roof of his mouth. His shoulders jump up and down with joy. “James is you fust niggah!” he says. “Y’all ain’t nevah seena niggah befo’. Doan be ’fray. Step in-sigh.” They slip inside the elevator car quick, afraid of the doors. “What flo?” he says. They don’t know. “Who y’all heah fo to see?”
“A baby,” Little Duck says.
“Thas three.” As James slides the knob, the Xs flatten into horizontals, closing the doors with the heavy, rolling sound of oiled steel. A whorling feeling inside their stomachs tells my brother and sister they’re moving, but they can’t tell if they’re going up or down. They cling to the wall to steady themselves. When James opens the doors at the pink walls of Pediatrics, Little Duck and Jima won’t get off. They’re afraid of falling through the dark, inchwide gap of nothingness between the elevator car and the granite floor.
“Doan look down,” James says. “Look straight and fly over.”They do. The floor they land on doesn’t move. They watch gratefully as James pulls the steel doors shut again, locking himself in. They find their way to the newborns, surprising the nurse. She’s snickering now, pointing out ugly me to Dr. Prescott as he makes his rounds with his cold metal stethoscope, checking our hearts. I’m lying there in my hospital bassinet, wrapped in my white flannel blanket, wearing my white cotton infant gown, not knowing what to expect, when I smell our dirt. Hoo-ray! Little Duck and Jima are standing in the doorway. They watch as the nurse flirtatiously removes the doctor’s authoritative, horn-rimmed eyeglasses and places them on my soft, newborn, disfigured face. I look about forty. The nurse laughs hard. A mean laugh that excludes everyone but herself and Dr. Prescott.
The doctor is taken aback. He is a literal man and can’t see all that well without his glasses. The nurse is rough as she picks me up with the doctor’s huge horn-rims balancing precariously on my small, soft bump of a nose. She thinks I’m inanimate—Ican tell by the jerky shove of her thumbs on my ribs. I’d like to shove her back some day. She uses me as a puppet to poke a little innocent fun at the doctor. “Give the bitch more gas—I want peace and quiet around here,” she says, imitating his voice exactly. That sends him into hysterics, a frightening sound, the sound of a controlled person finally letting loose. She laughs with him, following the up-and-down of his voice in an intimate, explicit way that tries to draw the attention back to her.
Bravery makes Jima defiant. When she’s angry, her pale gray eyes grow dark and speckled. Her sidelong approach is cast aside for a direct one, born of conviction. She walks straight up to the nurse. Little Duck is right behind her. “What are you two doing here?” the nurse says, reversing the blame. She gives Dr. Prescott his glasses back. “You’re to wait at the nurse’s station,” she says. But my brother and sister don’t move. He’s beautiful and calm with his deep-eyed stare. She’s mad and insistent. Nobody makes fun of their little sister. Jima holds out her arms to take me. The nurse hands me over. In the lightness of the touch of Jima’s hands, the careful, tender placement of the palms, in the protective crook of the elbow, in the lub-dub whisper of the heart through her yellow dress, I feel important. I feel love. I am a new little me that my sister wants. Whatever I have is yours, her heart says to me through her dress. The nurse presents the clipboard to my brother. He signs me out with anX. Off we go. Jima steadies me against the topsy-turvy flying motion of the elevator. She carries me through the hush of the lobby. She braces me against the smell of lipstick in the front seat of the blue car. My dangerous mother is near. I’m thrilled, though I react by holding my breath. I will have to get used to the tinny, distant sound of her voice in the air outside of the womb. Big Duck is at the wheel in his white hat. The sight of me rankles him. It comes across as a single, sludgy green wave of hate issued from his jaw. His lips curl with pleasure at the sight of my disfiguration. It serves me right. He smells like whisky and cigarettes. I need one, but I don’t know how to ask.
He drives away, making my brain spin, my insides queasy. Jima steadies me against the flying motion of the road. There are careening twists and turns that throw our bodies left and right. There are dips and bumps that send our stomachs into flips. There is the taste and smell and weight of dust, Iowa dust, dust rising in funnels that jet forth from our tires where the tread bites into the dirt, rising, rising up into the air, sifting down, down through the top of the open window, settling ever so gently and companionably on our skins. The road home. It’s a much wilder ride than when I was inside.
How did Salvation, especially the character of Crane Cavanaugh, come about? Did you begin with a full book's plot, or did you start smaller and expand?
Salvation grew out of a 3-page sketch entitled “Cannibals.” It was published in a quarterly. My agent was quite taken with it and wondered if it could be longer. The book began small. I thought of it as an account. I would get episodes, but details would be missing. For a long time, there were too many episodes that had the same narrative weight and that ruined the momentum. It was a difficult process.
What prompts you to begin a work of fiction? Do you start with an image, a character, a line of dialogue?
A character pops up, often in a situation I don’t understand. There’s an interior pressure to get to pen and paper to get it down. Dialogue comes later in my case. Several times, the first line of a story has come to me whole—and I know I have something.
What are your greatest challenges as a writer? Have they changed over the years you have been writing, or have new challenges arisen in place of others?
The greatest challenge is to get it down in its entirety, whatever it is, before it vanishes. A lesser challenge is to fuss less. Initially I wrote to get people on my side. Unfortunately, I had to portray every character fairly for that to work!
What writers inspire you the most?
They are mostly masters of short stories. Chekhov and Babel. The Big Four I studied in college: Hemingway, Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor. And every wonderful writer since then, including Katherine Ann Porter, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, William Trevor, Bernard Malamud, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Francine Prose, Ann Beattie, Roddy Doyle, Antonya Nelson, Lorrie Moore.
Are there any writers or works that Salvation reminds you of in particular?
I’m waiting for someone to tell me.
The natural world plays a significant role in Salvation. Can you talk about what function it serves for Crane and for the novel?
Nature is Crane’s great mutual life-long love affair. It’s always there, challenging, mystifying, engaging, satisfying her. It’s her path into society and into her psyche. Nature and how it works is her salvation.
Do you do a lot of research for your fiction? Has your research ever lead you to make significant changes to a story line or situation?
Yes. I want the details of time and place to be accurate. Research does change the story line but it was easily done in my case, because my plots are so soft!
Religion, especially song and preaching, is a strong running thread throughout the novel. Can you talk a bit about how these threads work?
Religions use preaching and singing as incantation to instill emotions and control behavior. I wanted to present preaching and singing in the book in a variety of tones—sincere, passionate, hypocritical, manipulative, fascistic. Then I wanted Crane’s voice and her nature "essays" to function in the book as her religion.
Are there any smaller characters in Salvation who especially stick with you? Do you often write about a character in more than one book or story, or do you tend to confine characters to one piece?
I love Mrs. Sodstrum, the Hawaiian widow who cleans the floors in the convent and teaches Crane the hula. She is loving, exotic, humble, and passionate. Very rarely do my characters show up in additional works. I wish they would. It might make me more prolific.
Can you tell a bit about how you came to writing? Do you work in other forms besides fiction—essay, poetry, etc.?
Since I was six, I always wrote stories. I write bad poetry.
Did your view of Crane change over the course of writing the book?
She was always generous, forgiving, analytical, and glad to be alive. The trick was to let her have more moments that expressed these traits. I tended to get caught up in depicting her defenses, which in early drafts made her seem too detached.
How would you describe her?
She’s an intellectually formidable, unjudgmental, forgiving, cheerful science geek with sado-masochistic socio-sexual imprinting that gets in the way.
Is there anything about her, scenes or ideas, that didn't make it into the final book?
Yes, three hundred pages covering the entire rest of Crane’s life. It wasn’t working.
1. Infant Crane’s consciousness of her situation is striking and unusual. Why does the author begin her book this way?
2. Why does the boy on the ceiling disappear?
3. Various attempts at parenting occur throughout Crane’s childhood. Which are most effective? Most ironic? Most horrifying?
4. Why is Crane fascinated with shitting?
5. Throughout the novel, food, clothing, and shelter are very important. How do these reflect Crane’s existence at each stage of her and her siblings’ lives?
6. How do the ants that Crane studies mirror, contrast, or foreshadow her own existence?
7. Eventually we learn that the whole community was aware of what was happening to Crane and her siblings. What was their response? What do you think of Mr. Fanelli’s response? Was he heroic, or negligent? We never learn who finally "turned them in" – was that the right thing to do?
8. Why does Crane fall in love with the boy who tortured her? How does that relationship change her life, and where does it leave her at the end of the novel?
9. There are a number of ironic juxtapositions in this novel: being given Vita-life vitamins instead of food, learning the Hawaiian love song in a convent, living in the same neighborhood both as an illiterate "retard" and a valedictorian. What purpose do these ironies serve?
10. Why is this book called Salvation? Who are the true saviors in this book, and who are the false ones? At the end of the book, where do you think Crane would actually place Jesus in that continuum?
11. Nevai’s language can be very poetic. Here is corn sprouting: "The first bright green tender shoots seemed to arrive overnight, one per seed, rinsing the field in an indescribable tint, the color of a memory, a popped bubble." (pg.34) What other passages got your attention?
12. The character names in this novel can be as telling as any in Dickens. Pick a few of your favorites and discuss.
13. Would you describe this novel as realistic?
14. In what ways does the Iowa setting play an important role in this book? What about farmers and farming in particular?
15. Is the end of the novel hopeful?