Keija Parssinen’s compelling “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis” occurs not in the here-and-now but in the very recent then: 1999.
That was the end of the millennium, when some people became convinced the world would end, or at least that our computers would all shut down. If not the Rapture, then the blank blue screen.
Parssinen, whose first novel won a Michener-Copernicus Award and who lives in Columbia, Mo., sets her second novel in a humid refinery town in southeast Texas. Port Sabine is a company town still reeling from a refinery explosion three years before that left 47 dead.
The town has pinned its hopes on Mercy Louis, a blazingly good basketball player for the Lady Rays, with 1,287 career points. Parssinen captures perfectly the way high school sports energizes and gives hope bordering on religious belief to small and midsize towns.
Blend H.G. Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” with Laura Moriarty’s “The Center of Everything” and you would have the flavor of this atmospheric book.
The novel opens with tragedy compounded by tackiness: the discovery of a fetus in a beer box in a dumpster behind a convenience store, an added burden for a town already defined by disaster.
Mercy is focused on rehashing her end-of-the season game, in which her fluid play fell apart. She is dedicated to recovering her athletic mojo over the summer. But there are distractions.
She has received a letter from her drug-addict mother, who disappeared shortly after Mercy’s birth. Then there’s wayward, reckless and high-maintenance best friend Annie Putnam, and Annie’s arrogant father.
Mercy lives in a stilt house on the bayou with her fervid, evangelical grandma Maw Maw, the guard dog of Mercy’s virtue.
Idealizing and crushing on Mercy from a distance is Illa, the Lady Rays’ team manager. The photographer for the school newspaper, Illa fittingly has the most clear-eyed view of the world. She also has a hard-earned maturity as the caretaker of her mother, wheelchair-bound since the refinery explosion.
Summer nights find Mercy playing pickup basketball with the local boys. She is regaining her edge and her confidence when she is detoured by sensitive Travis. Plus, Annie isn’t speaking to her, convinced that Mercy is behind her father’s plans to make her recover her tattered innocence at a Purity Ball, the details of which he has left to Maw Maw’s planning.
You might find some of this melodramatic: the town’s 40-foot tall Praying Hands memorial statue to the victims of the explosion and the “mass psychogenic illness” that besets first Mercy, then 13 other girls, afflicting them with spasms and tics, and interrupting their basketball season. This hysterical panic coincides with a time of a mysterious stench wafting from the refinery.
As summer ends, however, female sexuality is put on trial — as it has been since Puritan days — as the “neonaticide” investigation centers on Port Sabine’s high school girls.
Mercy Louis is, of course, the slightly modified name of Mercy Lewis from Miller’s “The Crucible.” Annie has her namesake in Miller’s character Ann Putnam, and other characters have names borrowed from Miller’s play as well (there’s even a Pastor Parris). And Miller peeled those names from the documents of the Salem witchcraft trials.
The reclusive Illa turns out to be the instrument through which some truths are revealed: personal truths for Mercy and damning truths for the refinery’s managers. Mercy unravels, but is rewoven into a less-than-perfect, but more authentic, human being.
Although the ending perhaps ties up too many loose ends, this sensitive novel delivers an emotionally satisfying read. If the names are borrowed from Puritan Salem, there’s nothing borrowed about the feelings Parssinen has for her characters and their fates.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and reviewer living in Topeka.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, by Keija Parssinen (320 pages; Harper; $25.99)