Thursday, June 21, 2012

Scout's Honor: "Girlchild" by Tupelo Hassman

Unless it was promoted in journals or on websites that I haven't visited, Tupelo Hassman's debut novel Girlchild seems to have gained its recognition by classic means, specifically word-of-mouth recommendations and a strong number of reviews on independent blogs and review sites. Hassman has published her fiction widely, yet Girlchild has been her major source of recognition as of late, and for good reason. It hasn't topped any bestseller lists, but its appreciation in the literary community has been strong and consistent. I tend to have problems with works of art that can fall into the "coming of age" category, but this work quickly manages to be so much more than something to which an easy label can be affixed. I'll get to its various components soon, but the novel, first and foremost, is above all a testament to great storytelling. With this in place, and with Hassman never wavering from her story, the work manages to go off in a few directions without distraction or emphasis taken away from its narrator. Girlchild had been on my list since its publication, and I was fortunate enough to receive a copy from the people behind the excellent short fiction site

The novel is narrated by its protagonist, a precocious, keen young girl named Rory Dawn Hendrix. She lives with her troubled but loving mother in a Nevada trailer park called the Calle (originally Calle De Las Flores in better times, before the remaining letters were punched or weathered off). The various citizens in their midst are a community of sorts, but painfully isolated; acts of goodwill are few and far between, and done with an understanding of necessary payback. And some of the residents are severely troubled. Rory is an excellent student, wise beyond her years, and while not officially a Girl Scout, she has checked out the Girl Scout Handbook multiple times and attempts to exemplify its code (and her own honor) despite crippling setbacks. Hassman's expression of Rory's point of view is carefully crafted, balancing her innocence, her loss of innocence, and her unique way of expressing various ideas. The book is full of single, nearly perfect sentences that gave me pause in the best of ways. An early example is Rory's explanation of her family situation and how she and her mother came to settle in the Calle.

"Mama says my brothers were the only reason she'd not followed Grandma to the Calle years before, so when the boys left home to free fish from the ocean with their delinquent dad, we left Santa Cruz and the man who was my father in the rearview. Mama had come to Reno the first time years before that, when she was getting divorced from my brothers' daddy. She'd had to stay here for six weeks to make it legal, and even in that short time was able to find a job, so she knew she could find work here again, running keno or making change, and Grandma Shirley agreed (Hassman 7)."

The town is described with a wealth of details, but the most important aspect is its citizens and their actions. There's an uneasy similarity and unspoken tradition as to how the people act and interact. The occasional lawlessness is necessary for survival, and the instincts and rituals are written as a sociological case study, as if they couldn't be understood by outsiders despite its universal tone of hard times and general malaise.

"Most other rituals concern the Calle bartenders and involve recovering lost souls who come to the Truck Stop or other local drinking establishments to be revived after their shifts downtown have ended. Bartenders serve the workers as well as listen to the much-repeated stories of those who no longer work, whose dimmed eyes suggest their souls are no longer recoverable, their mouths collecting stubborn white spit in the corners despite how much alcohol is poured into them. Alcohol is often considered the root cause of both the loss and the revival of Calle souls, but in some cases, usually those of young men whose eyes are still relatively bright and whose mouths don't need wiping, it is understood that the bartender, if female and 'a fox,' may be the one causing the mood swings and not the spirits (Hassman 14)."

The chapters are a mix of long, narrative passages, recounts of social worker visits, a Supreme Court case, and very small chapters that foreshadow and/or explain a given character's makeup. These small chapters are crafted so well that they could potentially stand on their own as pieces of flash fiction.

"The estimated burn time for the average mobile home, top to bottom, aerial antennae to cinder block, drywall to stucco, is sixty seconds, and I do mean flat, aluminum to ash in the space of a 'Brought to you by' or 'Tonight at eleven.' And those sixty seconds are up even faster in homes whose only source of heating are propane tanks and woodstoves, the easiest sources of heat, because nobody needs your social for a gallon of propane and nobody checks your credit for a truckload of wood. Propane and kindling mean it's a safe bet that nobody from the County is going to come down and see how your cables hook up. Nobody checks to see if you're living right if you don't try to do it official (Hassman 27)."

Rory's first major problem is the sexual abuse she receives at the hands of her babysitter's father, a character ominously known only as the Hardware Man. Hassman writes these scenes with a child's point of view, therefore making the actions feel even more hideous than they already are. Such a monumental crime and loss of innocence could be the main plot point of a novel, but the fact that it's explained and "resolved" (as much as it can be for Rory's sake) before the book's halfway point is stunning. A socially negative way to explain this would be to say that a pedophile is just one of many problems facing Rory and her mother. But despite its devastating consequences, Rory, despite the threats, is able to expose the Hardware Man and begin the act of healing. Before this happens, the reader is presented tense, uncomfortable passages from an agonizing angle.

"...I pretend not to hear the adult talk that passes across the counter between the men of the town about certain women of the town as they pay the Hardware Man for their wood screws and drill bits. I also pretend like I never have to go potty. Because I don't need help, but the Hardware Man will want to help me anyway. And when he helps me, the lights go out (Hassman 40)."

Joanne, Rory's mother, is a fascinating character in her own right. Though told through Rory's eyes (and the occasional case file), we get her complete picture with nothing left out. She's tough, no-nonsense, and absolutely devoted to her daughter, whom she knows is the smartest member of the family, even at such a young age. Joanne has made her share of mistakes, attracts the occasional unsavory man, and is haunted by her youth. However, she's a strong woman, and her survival instinct and years of hard living help her guide Rory through childhood to her teenage years. Her devotion to her daughter is touching and beautiful, and presented without any needless sentimentality. In one scene, Rory's best friend moves away, and her mother comforts her.

"On the way home, Mama asks me if I want to talk about anything, like she's been asking me every night, and I don't think I do but then I decide to tell her.

'Viv moved away.'

And Mama does something she's never done before. She reaches over and takes my hand and she holds it all the way to our driveway. Her hand is bigger than I think and stronger than it looks but her voice is gentle when she says, 'It's hard to let go of a friend, R.D., even when it's for the best. I bet you'll see her again (Hassman 113).'"

Girlchild is written with a full spectrum of emotions. I've predominantly cited some of the more intense ones, but Tupelo Hassman has a gift for comedic dialogue and scenes. These are sometimes explicitly funny, but more often than not weighed with underlying ideas and metaphors. In one terrific passage, Viv assesses Rory's mobile home:

"She swings her arms and legs fast, pushing like me but harder. 'Your house could go places!'

'Nope,' I say, finishing my wings and getting up, careful not to mess my angel's skirt. I help Viv up, and we brush twigs off each other and check our work, two angels flattening the sage. 'It just looks that way (Hassman 74).'"

This is a novel, but it works as a collage of sorts. Again, Hassman crafts a mix of longer chapters and brief ones, as well as sociological word problems, explanations of the Girl Scout Handbook, and further histories of Rory's mother and grandmother. Without spoiling the ending, Rory grows into a teenager and has to overcome another monumental setback, and the work ends with the right amount of closure and vagueness as to where Rory will end up. It's difficult to pick Girlchild's strongest trait, but what I kept coming back to was its honesty and realism. Literary depictions of trailer park residents and down on their luck citizens are sometimes rendered with underlying stereotypes, but Hassman creates very real people, and this is all the more magnified by the fact that it's her debut novel. Her knack for dialogue and expressions are beautiful, and as I mentioned before, there are so many single sentences hidden within longer paragraphs that work as their own pieces of art. Rory and Joanne are two of the most memorable female characters in contemporary literature, and their determination gives the work the feel of an older classic. Since Hassman is so grounded in honesty and craft, it's not hard to imagine her creating future works in different settings (an urban drama, a story set in a different country) that feel just as vibrant. For a story that could have easily fallen prey to the missteps of a young writer, I'm still amazed at how advanced Hassman's prose is, and how she manages to explore a variety of styles and formats without detracting from what is a generally standard plot. Girlchild is one of the highlights of 2012, and while there's no way to say this without resorting to cliche, it marks the debut and growing awareness of a very talented artist.

Work Cited:
Hassman, Tupelo. Girlchild. Copyright 2012 by Tupelo Hassman.

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