fulfilling my 2019 goal to read (at least) one book each month that i bought in hardcover and put off reading long enough that it is now in paperback.
What’s the point of flinching? Whatever is coming comes anyway.
this is a novel that refuses to be tidy or conclusive or moralistic. it also resists the conventional expectations of novelistic structure. not that it’s experimental or flashy, but it’s hard for me to even define its plot, its message, its ‘whatness.’ technically, i suppose it’s the ‘whyness’ i’m having difficulty pinning down, but that makes it sound like i’m saying “why was this written?,” and that has the implicit weight of criticism attached which is not at all my intention.
it’s a novel much more focused on character and atmosphere than on plot. things certainly happen, but the synopsis is a bit misleading, and it’s more concerned with exploring the shifting dynamic between its three main teengirl characters: ruth, magda, and isabel over the course of one summer in their long island hometown of highbone.
it’s a little muddled at first—the chapters alternate between third-person POVs of the three girls, but the voices aren’t wildly differentiated. the characters’ experiences become quite distinct and specific, but they are difficult to navigate at the beginning—the early chapters are detail-rich, heavy with backstory and info-dumped specifics before we get to ‘know’ the personalities, and it’s a lot to keep track of right outta the gate.
the story takes place just after the vietnam war, and highbone is full of men who have come back with nothing; homeless and shattered from their experiences, roughening up the picturesque town’s beaches and bandstands with their presence:
The three of them pass by the weird mix of preppies and homeless people sprinkled around outside Flannagan’s Bar, and walk, singing, past the floating docks by the playground. They pass all the broken men returned from Vietnam, twitching and hallucinating on the benches at the bottom of Main Street. It’s four years since the war really ended, but the human wreckage is still lying around everywhere. It doesn’t match with the Rhode Island types in their sailboats, moored in the harbor, the picture-postcard park and the Victorian shop fronts.
DIGRESSION: i myself am from rhode island, and am unsure what “Rhode Island types” are, but the description of this town’s economic disparity reminded me very much of newport; “the dividing lines, the different worlds.” we’re not all fancy folk, and someone’s gotta clean all those mansions and live “away from the beach and the bluffs and the old arts and crafts houses.” END OF DIGRESSION
even before the war, even without the presence of these ‘broken men,’ highbone is a town saturated with menace, particularly for its women, its girls. the menace is exaggerated, almost hyperbolic; the girls are exposed to or are themselves victims of rape, assault, beatings, gropings, the expectation of sexual favors, even the local cop ogles isabel’s ‘sixteen-year-old legs.’
in short, it’s a shitty place for a girl to become a woman, for reasons both individual and bigger-picture:
“We have to get out of this town, woman. Think about it. My mom hides behind the couch for days on end and my dad won’t even call her a doctor. The one road to opportunity is working for the mob in a topless bar. Every time you go to the bathroom in Dunkin’ Donuts, you get felt up by some diseased creep in a napalm jacket. You can’t spit in the park without hitting some guy who got his brain put in a blender in Vietnam. Ruth’s mom is the coolest parent we have between us, and she has to clean the toilets of a shallow bitch like Mrs. Hancock. Your little brother gets lost in the middle of the night, and you can’t even count on your dad not to take it out on you. No, no, no. We do not belong here, and this place will crush us, Magda. Has it escaped your notice that the main road in and out of here is freakin’ called the LIE? It’s a pit of untruth, you can’t climb out without getting some on you.”
in the absence of suitable maternal figures (one ran away from her abusive husband, one is in and out of institutions, and one is a pot-smoking hippie with a laissez-faire approach to parenting), the girls look for their life lessons elsewhere. there’s vicky, former stripper and prostitute, current dunkin’ donuts employee:
Her hair is bleached like Jean Harlow, but with inch-deep roots as dark as FBI shoes. The pink uniform makes her look even paler than she is. She has two scabs on her chin, and you can see the scar on her upper arm from the time she ran away to the city and got cut up by a john in the subway. Vicky still has that deep, dead junkie look in her eyes. That’s what makes every guy that sees her want to touch her, no matter how many other guys have been there before them. Something about that crazy emptiness turns guys on.
isabel, for one, envies vicky’s freedom to come and go as she pleases, and considers stripping at the town’s local club to be one of the few places to make enough money to finally escape the stifling confines of her life
“Guys will pay to look at you naked. How nuts is that? They’re always gonna be grabbing us and shoving their hard-ons up against us. There’s no stopping ‘em; we might as well work somewhere with a bouncer and charge them for it.”
the other maternal stand-in is doris—the big, blonde badass & brassy girlfriend of a biker, who encounters the girls wandering the streets late one night after a group of jocks have yelled sexually aggressive things and thrown a vodka bottle at them.
“Let me tell you the secret…Put it right out there…Sex…Men are actually terrified of it. All this crap about libidos and blue balls and frigid housewives—it’s a scam. Trust me. Never been with a guy who wanted to fuck more than I did. Acting like you don’t want it just helps them feel in control. Is that your mission?…So, put it right out there. Wear that shit on the outside. Nobody’ll bother you unless they already feel up for it. They won’t need to cut your feet to get their hard-ons back.”
if you think that this doesn’t sound like a YA novel, you’re right. the girls have a world-weary perspective uncommon in actual teens, leading to articulations like: “Show me a woman who doesn’t fantasize about hurting herself,” Ruth says, “and I’ll show you a liar.”
scrolling down to see the author fielding a question about reader-age-appropriateness for the book, her answer is very clarifying:
Though Little Wrecks is about three teen girls, it’s really an adult literary novel that got sold as YA. People who like it tend to be readers who like literary. A warning: there a [sic] drugs, mental health issues and sexual violence.
it does not read like YA. not because of the intensity or the subject matter or even the too-adult observations of its characters. it’s more about the shape of it—its build and its resolution and its pretty damn bleak conclusion. it’s not an empowering grrrrl novel. there’s violence and consequences and bad decisions, and, ultimately, the girls can’t even count on each other. it’s a coming-of-age novel that focuses on the fracturing that occurs in adolescent relationships as each girl’s problems and choices lead her down a different path towards selfhood.
i still don’t know what the takeaway of the novel is meant to be, other than “life is hard for girls,” but i really enjoyed reading it, and it’s got a lot of power, although maybe better appreciated by adult readers.