We live, I’ve heard, in a civilized country, in a civilized time.
– “Parts,” by Holly Goddard Jones
Girl Trouble is a collection of short stories set in Roma, Kentucky, a small town that Jones treats both symbolically and utterly realistically. It’s a perpetually liminal place:
He was eating lunch alone at Gary’s Pit Barbecue on the bypass and thinking about how strange it was to see too nicely dressed women–one quite young, early twenties maybe, the other one closer to his own age–eating thick-piled pork barbecue sandwiches between spurts of typing on their laptops. He liked it. He wasn’t a man who adapted well to change, and he probably couldn’t even figure out how to turn one of those things on, but there was something reassuring about this picture, nonetheless: the mix of old and new, the idea that his hometown could move on in some ways and stay the same where it counted.
Roma is a carefully used setting and a convenient organizing structure, but it’s also a realistically portrayed small Midwestern town with all the regional class details perfectly in place; characters work at Sonic, shop at Wal-Mart, go to carnivals set up behind Pizza Huts, and clip coupons for dinner specials at Ponderosa. An abortion means a drive to Louisville. A woman uses Ivory soap for her daily baths and Caress only when her truck driver husband is coming home. The wealthiest character in the collection owns a second-rate discount furniture store. None of this is satirized; Jones treats it all as the basic texture of her characters’ lives.
The town is always the same, but the angle on it changes suggestively between the stories, with Jones often replaying events in a different key. In “Retrospective,” a quiet housewife is raped by a stranger, and the cops offer her family the choice of a legal response or an “off the books” one that includes her husband getting a few minutes alone with the rapist; in “Good Girl,” the police chief tells a good man that he’ll arrange things so the rape charge against the man’s son falls through:
“Hell, Jake, we go back… These girls, I don’t know. They’re different nowadays. Time was, a girl knew what she should and shouldn’t do. You know what I’m saying?”
Jacob, not sure if he did, nodded.
“She got in the truck with him, that’s what I mean. And I heard things about her from that kid, the one who told me about Tommy. He said that she hangs out at the Sonic after her shift ends, smoking and drinking and all that shit. Fifteen, I mean, Christ.”
The constant is the locals–the “good families”–putting their thumb on the scale when it comes to justice, especially on notoriously hard to prosecute rape cases, and Jones replaying the same situation from different angles lets her show when–and to whom–this feels like a blessing, while at the same time letting the ugliness and bias of it shine through. This meddling isn’t the point of either story–“Retrospective” is about the slow, resentful, guilt-ridden, and deception-filled collapse of a marriage and “Good Girl” is about whether or not a father will choose his weak, pettily cruel son or a new life with a new woman. The police corruption is just the way things are, something that factors into how the characters live and how they make their decisions.
Class and the limited but yearned-for potential for upward mobility is another constant. Jones is brutally straightforward about the way her characters sometimes jettison relationships that threaten to hold them back–and about the consequences that sometimes ensue when they don’t. In “Theory of Realty,” thirteen-year-old Ellen abandons her best friend, Ray, because of a feeling of contamination by Ray’s careless, openly adulterous mother; in “An Upright Man,” bright, tough Tara fights to get away from a loving relationship with Robbie, the going-nowhere young man who adores her, because she knows he’ll never leave Roma, that he almost can’t exist outside of it. Class status remains one of the things the characters view as inherently worth fighting to protect, which feels–here on the verge of the Fourth of July–very American; the characters instinctively process it as slippery and hard to hold, much easier to lose than it is to gain, and they know that class is mostly about safety. It’s about whether the law will protect you, and how much; it’s about who has confidence in what arena.
The main, subtly handled focus of the collection, however, might be sexual discomfort. In “Allegory of a Cave,” Jones presents a believable, Plato-reading truck driver who provides his son with an uneasy rite of passage by taking him to a private show at a strip club; a more decorous, suburban form of sexual corruption shows up in “Theory of Realty,” with a bereaved father offering a thirteen year-old a wine cooler and telling her far too much about his life. In “Life Expectancy,” a high school basketball coach’s affair with his star player hits a wall when she becomes pregnant. Jones does more with that than the one-line summary would imply, looking carefully and even sympathetically at how the coach increasingly sees this child as a chance to reboot his own life, and at the tension of him holding on more and more tightly to that idea even as the girl’s refusal to fit into his plans grows more and more obvious. That sympathy shows up again and again. Jones writes like someone who understands the human ache of all her characters, even the awful ones, but she plots appropriately mercilessly, knowing that humanity rarely saves us from ourselves.
The masterpiece diptych of the collection is the single story that is broken down into “Parts” and “Proof of God.” In “Parts,” a furious, grieving mother deals with the rape and brutal murder of her college-aged daughter:
When she started to scream, Simon covered her mouth for a moment wit ha pillow–a novelty pillow, rainbow-striped, fish-shaped, that I’d bought for her myself–and when she screamed again, he covered her face again, and she was dead when he removed it the second time. Or at least seemed to be…
“Seemed to be” because it turns out that Felicia was still alive when the two boys, attempting to cover up the crime, drenched her in air freshener spray and torch her dorm room; Felicia dies only days later, “so swollen and bandaged that she [is] unknowable, her dark blonde hair burned almost completely away, the wisps clinging to her forehead as brittle and dark as curlicues of graphite.” Her hands are amputated, and her mother thinks of Titus Andronicus and Lavinia. The revenge she wants is uncivilized and violent, and she is denied it. For once in the collection, the justice system ostensibly works as it’s supposed to, which is to say it works in the flawed, corrupted way it does in real life, where people gamble with pleas and money walks and people comment online about whether or not the victim is innocent enough. The white criminal gets a special news profile about how he’s rebuilding his life and not holding any grudges; his Mexican-American accomplice goes to prison for twenty years, the possible justice of his sentence made almost meaningless by the obvious imbalance of it.
“Proof of God” covers the same story, but from the point of view of the murderer, Simon, who is allowed to start his life over again. It’s the pairing of these two stories that makes me think of Girl Trouble as something that could be shelved in mystery (and “Proof of God” was indeed picked up by Best American Mystery Stories). Jones achieves something remarkable with this balance. It’s a much fuller portrayal of a crime than you generally see, seemingly effortlessly portraying both the complexity of Simon’s character, the clumsy and impulsive nature of the murder, and the sheer devastation of its aftermath, to which Simon’s character and the intentions behind the murder mean nothing at all. And almost incidentally, the two stories cover sexual mores, divorce, obsession, apathy, and fathers and sons. The relationship between Simon and his father is one of the best in the book, chilling and yet movingly evoked, a love that needs violence to stabilize it, a tenderness dependent on his father’s ideas of manhood:
The only person who’d ever know the facts of what happened three nights later in Felicia’s dorm room–the facts, though not actually the truth behind them–was Simon’s father. Simon had known that his father would have the power and smarts to help him, but he’d also sensed, on a level he didn’t even care to acknowledge, that his father would understand. Would forgive him and maybe even support him in away he couldn’t have have done had Simon confessed to something else…
His father looked in the bag [with Simon’s bloody clothes]. “Christ, kid. What a fucking mess.”
“I’m sorry, Dad.” …
“Well,” his father said. “A little late for sorries.” But he crossed the living room and kissed Simon’s forehead, holding his face roughly with his big hands, then rested his chin on Simon’s crown. “Your mother loves you,” he said.
Simon knew what his father meant. “I know.”
“Go to bed, son. I’ll take care of it.”
Nuance, precisely evoked milieus, sympathy, a cold eye, and a bone-deep understanding of the eternal relevance of Titus Andronicus and its savageries–that’s what Girl Trouble brought to the table in the year we highlight this month. Those qualities continue to make Jones a writer worth watching.