In his only novel, Australian Nick Cave out-Southern Gothics William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor with his ur-swamp tale of total corruption, the degradation of all life and complexity into unthinking muck. The primal swamp lies in Ukulore Valley, which travellers and the march of history avoid even before the apocalyptic three-year rain. Despite spanning the 1930s through the 50s (arguably beginning even earlier, when Euchrist’s father is born in 1890), the valley is untouched by wars and social progression.
This rift in the land nurtures both sugar cane and the most repellent consanguineous tribes of people on earth. One is the Ukulites, the minority ruling class population in the valley who follow the 1861 bible written by an excommunicated Baptist. The other is the Morton clan, sometimes cannibalistic inbred hillfolk who prey on travellers, and are nearly wiped out by lawmen in the novel’s early chapters. One, Ezra Eucrow, whose tangled genes are revelled only in his shuddering light blue eyes, escapes before the slaughter and settles with the town’s outcast moonshiner, Crow Jane. Jane gives birth in the burnt corpse of a Chevy to twin boys, badly damaged by their tangled genetic code, fetal alcohol syndrome, and congenital disease. The firstborn, luckier twin dies soon after; the second, Eucrid, grows into a twisted and desperate young man who lacks the power of speech.
Despite its religious focus, Cave insists And the Ass Saw the Angel is not an allegory. Nevertheless, it is packed with possible thematic markers and symbols that blend to ultimately form little more than a message of abject wretchedness. Breaks in this despair are rare and exist sole as lights to be snuffed out by the next horror and leave the darkness that much deeper.
Euchrid’s insane parents avenge his terrible beating by throwing his persecutors into a patch of nasty thorns, where he later hides from his pursuers. Before her own mob assault, the town’s heroin-addicted whore treats Eucrid kindly, establishing an internal heaven in his mind made up of her perfumes and soft breasts. From this safe mental haven come his worst heavenly commands to build himself a fort of horrors and plan the murder of the town’s young Virgin Mary. The town’s disgraced minister adopts and sincerely loves this foundling girl, but allows the parishioners to “prime Beth for sainthood” in return for their care and cooking.
In Ukulore Valley, individual yearnings toward the spark of divinity lead only to mass abuse and profanity. God’s plans figure heavily in every character’s thoughts, albeit in twisted and self-serving fanaticisms. For Euchrid in particular it shapes his formless need for acceptance into a targeted and devastating vengeance on his small world. The Ukulites scramble to keep hold of their faith in the face of a hard rain that for three years destroys their cane crops and keeps them inside. They briefly fall under the sway of wayward preacher Abie Poe, who moves them to symbolically destroy the corruption in the community by brutally beating the whore Cosey Mo and to clense themselves in the fetid swamp. They reject him after the aborted mass baptism—crippling an innocent is fine, but humiliating the parishioners is right out.
Euchrist and the townspeople descend separately into mad religiosity after the discovery of Cosey’s abandoned infant coincides with the return of the sun. Euchrist lurks on the fringes, abused by all who spy him there, escaping into dreams of his angel that cover and entwine with masturbation (he notes the “ectoplasm” left on his hand from the angel as proof of her presence). He thinks of himself as “a Voyeur to the Lord.” Meanwhile the townspeople venerate Beth as the womb of Christ’s return, medically verifying her virginity and impatiently waiting for her to conceive. Beth retreats into the same staring fits that marked Ezra’s mountain lineage and pathetic religious visions similar to Euchrist’s, implying Ezra had a progenitive relationship with Cosey, whose body he secretly buried with tenderness.
These two insanities come together as Beth misapprehends the mute and wild Euchrist as the Holy Spirit come to enact the Big Plan the townswomen have groomed her for. Euchrist, in a very concrete Freudian slip, comes to kill the teenaged Beth (as a false prophet and devil) and instead has sex with her, an act lost in the delusional muck of his perceptions. As the Ukulites hunt him down and destroy his hideaway of horrors on the suspicion he’s assaulted Beth, he succeeds in plunging his scythe into her in the town square (this time, not metaphorically). As the townspeople kill Euchrist in revenge, the rain once again begins to fall.
The final image is of the core fundamentalist women gathering around their newborn Christ. The labor has killed Beth, who narrowly survived Euchrist’s attack. With Ezra’s “shivering, pale blue eyes,” Beth’s son is the consanguineous grandchild of the despised town rejects brought to the very heart of the community. Euchrist has proved not a cancer to be removed from the town’s body (in which his mother’s moonshine is shown repeatedly to be the blood) but a testicle, the literal distillation of their shared nature producing the next generational evolution.
The fanatic Ukulites and the twisted, dying clans will descend into fruitless entropy together.