Jay Shearer, The Pulpit vs. The Hole
Publisher: Gold Line Press
2012, 53 pages, paperback, $10

Cram a bunch of teenagers into six cabins at a church camp and what do you get? Shenanigans. Jay Shearer’s The Pulpit vs. The Hole pits a handful of misfit rebel teenagers at eastern Pennsylvania’s Abednego Mennonite summer camp against the camp’s counselors, director, and the lads with “soccer boy haircuts” from Cabin One.

Pulpit is narrated by Marty, Jordan’s hometown friend, and details how the two boys question their faith, navigate social hierarchies, explore their sexuality with the camp girls, and find their place in the world among both authoritative and ineffectual counselors. Shearer’s story sucks you in at the start: the boys from Cabin 6, with two hardheaded teen girls in tow, have just snuck into the woods. They’re all following Jordan, the “Nazi Injun” and 15-year-old de facto leader who encourages his crew into mischief in order to get Cabin 6’s name changed from the Woodchucks, which Jordan thinks is “gay,” to the Warlocks—an obvious upgrade.

Many odd and interesting characters fill the pages of this long short story, including the bumbling camp counselor and aspiring ophthalmologist Dan Musser, who entertains the camp kids with his Christian take on the standard Elvis impersonation—named, aptly, “Elvis Praise-ley.” Additionally, there’s Big Jim Weaver, the strong and incorruptible camp director; Sandra, a young girl who’s mysteriously missing several fingers from one of her hands; Corky, the kid who always runs at the first sign of trouble; Andre, an overweight kid who loves his boom box; and Barbara Gish, the beautiful Canadian whom everyone calls “Maple Sugar.”

The narrative is divided into two parts, each written in a three-act arrangement, which pushes this story up to forty-three pages in length. The prose is tight and clean, and it’s appropriately slangy. There’s nothing fancy about it. When Shearer does shoot for the moon (it’d be more accurate to say a substantially tall tree), he’s doesn’t always hit the mark—so prepare to dodge a few clunkers. In addition, Pulpit could have used another round of proofreading, as typographical errors are scattered throughout.

Yet, the principal flaw in the work occurs when the story’s major plot point unfolds in a clumsy, red-herring way. Jordan, the protagonist, has recently stolen the camp director’s office key during a dressing down he endured for a previous offense. Then, out of nowhere, Barbara Gish, the 15-year old camp bombshell, suddenly pulls out a journal and admits that the camp director, Big Jim Weaver, advised her to journal her thoughts. Barbara then reveals an awkward revelation that closes out Part I and initiates the major point of conflict in Part II. However, the journaling arrives suddenly, never to be brought up again until near the climax, providing Pulpit’s one disappointment. But if this indiscretion can’t be overlooked, I suggest forgiving it.

A boy’s coming of age story set in a Christian summer camp may not hold much appeal for some readers, though summer-camp veterans will find much to be pleased with. I spent four summers at a Lutheran camp in southwestern Pennsylvania, and Pulpit brought back fond memories of campfire songs and sneaking into the woods with camp girls (and later, counselors) after the cabin leaders fell asleep. Summer camp works as a perfect setting for this story. Isolated in a wooded area, with no chance of leaving or contacting home, the two alpha males—like lions in a pride—must square off against each other: one to keep order and maintain the status quo, the other to assert himself within a small, authoritative, and uncertain world. And the inevitable climax comes in a big way.

The Pulpit vs. The Hole was printed as a result of winning Gold Line Press’s 2011 Chapbook Competition, but with a run of only a few hundred copies, printed versions of Pulpit will be difficult to find. If you can get your hands on it, it’s worth a read. Additionally, I advise keeping an eye out for Shearer’s work in the future.

—Daniel Szymczak