“Sally St. Johns,” by Denise Heinze

Denise Heinze

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

The voice of 43-year-old Sally St. Johns sparkles with intelligence and humor in Denise Heinze’s debut novel, which shares its title with the protagonist.

As this eco-thriller opens, Sally calls to inform her mother she is in big trouble. She is in jail. Not for jaywalking either. The CIA wants to talk to her about her work as CEO of an alternative energy company.

With such a high-stakes opening, readers might expect to be biting their nails. Instead, the sassy narrator and her outlandish but devoted mother provoke frequent laughter. For example, two agents place a hood over Sally’s head and drive her out to the Iowa countryside. When they uncover Sally’s face, she looks around and says, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is the best the CIA can do? A detainee camp in a cow pasture? What’s it called? SHITMO?” Although the agents kick Sally around and chain her in a barn, her wisecracks and internal musings keep the atmosphere campy, reminiscent of movies like Spaceballs or Airplane. Yet the underlying ideas in Sally St. Johns are of vital importance to humankind.

Sally’s affinity for animals makes her eminently likable. The agents tie a starving calf on the other side of the barn, knowing that if anything will make Sally spill all she knows about a terrorist plot, it is her desire to help an animal in pain. Trouble is, she has no idea what these agents are talking about. Watching the poor calf torments her unbearably and she struggles against her chains: “Who made people rulers of the world, I wanted to know. Who gave them dominion over animals? Not any God I worshiped.”

Because Marfan syndrome caused Sally to tower over all the other kids while growing up and because her family members are poor farmers, she didn’t have an easy start in life. That she has overcome obstacles to become successful in an important field further endears her to readers.

It comes as no surprise when other characters like Sally, too. In fact, they like her enough to risk their careers to rescue her. She discovers she is suspected of conspiring with a terrorist code-named Switchgrass to search out and destroy every alternative source of energy in the world.

While the novel addresses the planet’s most serious issues—energy and climate change—the suggested solution requires plenty of potty humor to overcome our innate squeamishness. The salvation of mankind involves capturing methane from human excrement in sewer systems and burning it as gas. Employing a twist on a popular novel title, Sally’s lawyer Bud declares, “Eat, crap, pray. Use the gas to cook up more food and the cycle continues.”

Sally St. Johns distinguishes itself from the full-throttle ahead of typical thrillers by including considerable backstory that provides a more richly developed protagonist. We learn much about Sally’s past, everything from her mother defending her against a childhood bully to her playing professional basketball in Charlotte.

Kooky characters populate this novel. Maxine J. Paddock, one of Sally’s former employees, was nicknamed by colleagues as “Maxi Pad because it seemed like she was always on the rag.” Maxine is “[s]hort, squat, snarly, and slightly bucktoothed” and “[s]he reeked  bitterness like an onion does fumes.” No question: readers aren’t meant to like her any more than those former colleagues did.

Another offbeat character is Sally’s mother. Crazy she may be, but Sally’s mother is lovable. She chatters incessantly with thoughts flying off in bizarre directions. And she may be just a bit obsessive over a Michael Jackson video she’s watched a million times. Nonetheless, she always stands up for her daughter and her country:

She’d lost her father to racist violence and her mother in the wake of a society’s crushing indifference to justice. But she never forgot whose country it was; those people, like her parents, who insisted that each generation of Americans be freer than the last.

So it’s understandable when Sally makes a mad dash toward danger, determined to save her mother. We all can understand Sally’s desire to accomplish good in the world to earn her mother’s approval: “I wanted to tell her that the biggest reason I wanted to make the planet green was so she would be proud of me. It is the reason most of us ever do anything worthwhile.” (Can you hear me sighing over that lovely nugget of truth?)

Heinze is too good of a writer not to throw in surprises, like characters turning out to be far different than we first suspect. The plot chuckles along to an unexpected but earned conclusion that left me wondering if the answer to our energy problems might be right under our behinds.

Curious, I googled human excrement as an energy source. Indeed, it is feasible and already being used in numerous ways. Perhaps this engaging novel will interest more people in exploring this alternative to fossil fuels.

After graduating from North Carolina Central University and Duke, Heinze taught literature at Western Carolina University and North Carolina State University. She has published scholarly work, essays, memoirs, poetry, and short fiction. Her short story “The Grid” was named a quarter-finalist in the 2015 Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award contest.

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  1. Ann Prospero says

    Denise, Great review. Your book sounds like it’s both funny and serious. I’m going to look for it! Ann Prospero

  2. Thanks, Ann!

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