Monday, August 11, 2014

Stop Here, by Beverly Gologorsky

I find it hard to get interested in most new novels, and feel guilty about this because I aspire to write such books myself, and can easily imagine a reader coming across my unwritten novel and thinking, “Jesus, more of this stuff.” American literary fiction, written and read largely by the comfortable, is a net that keeps hauling up far more than can be healthily consumed of certain species of story.

Meanwhile, if you want to find out about the reality of life for most black Americans (and happen not to be black yourself); or the collapse of our small towns and the despoiling of their land; or the burgeoning prison state, you mostly have to read nonfiction, or track down a handful of decent documentaries and television shows. To readers who are interested in these “social justice” issues only in the most abstract sense, I say—wait a little while, their problems will soon be yours, and you will have much to learn from the ways that the poor, poised on the lip of the great American meat grinder, have always managed to cope with them.

There are many burrs in this grinder, but one of the biggest is war, and ours are still fought mostly by lower-class whites. (Joe Bageant covered his portion of this ground, in essays and a memoir, as well as anyone.) Beverly Gologorsky, in her novel Stop Here, focuses on the toll of war for women—raising young children with husbands gone, dead, or returned with what was once known as “soldier’s heart” and is now blandly known as PTSD. Whatever one calls what they return with, these men are just a piece of a bad luck or some internal axe-blow away from collapse. Meanwhile, someone has to keep stringing together inconvenient shifts, pouring the coffee and putting out the meals, and Stop Here is about them.

The book revolves around the waitresses and cooks at a Long Island diner. Almost every character—except for their boss who vociferously supports our troops and the people who send them into danger—has been intimately affected by one of America’s recent engagements. (Lest this seem unrealistic, or like an exercise in sociology, I encourage you to read this article by Gologorsky, which first drew me to the novel, on the effect of war on the people in the neighborhood where she grew up.) One mother is trying to dissuade her daughter from joining up, another has a husband falling apart from worry about a child in Afghanistan, another is a widow raising a young son with the father dead in Iraq.

The repetition of themes frankly made some of the characters hard to keep straight. After I finished the book, I was talking about it with my wife, but couldn’t remember exactly which problems Mila and Darla and Shelly and Ava were having. And indeed, Gologorsky is not brilliant at individual portraiture. One problem is she has little knack for realistic dialogue. I kept coming up short against lines that it was unlikely these characters would say, and a few that absolutely no one would say (the word “hauntingly” actually comes out of one fictional mouth). The most finely differentiated characters—Sylvie, a former actress in an unhappy marriage to the diner owner, and Rosalyn, a waitress who earns extra money as an escort—are also the ones who feel like they could easily belong in hundreds of other novels.

It is the swirl of other women that, for me, set Stop Here apart—the ones I had trouble keeping straight, all similarly hemmed in by not having much money, only a few types of available work, and obligation after obligation to handle with only modest help from each other and a family member or two. But they are by no means powerless, because they know from long experience how to manage decently with very little, and handle heartbreak as a matter of routine. Gologorsky’s dialogue, I think, stems from the desire to make her characters as eloquent as they deserve to be, so even if it doesn’t always sit easily on the page, the impulse is honorable and I can let it go.

One scene gets at everything that is working and not working in this short book. A cook at the diner, Bruce, is terrified because his liberal daughter has gone off on what seems to be a fairly pointless peace mission to the Middle East. His daughter has promised to e-mail him every few days to tell him that she’s OK, but a week has gone by now without a message. The father, living in a community where disaster is being continually braced for—and with good reason, because it will eventually arrive—goes to visit the wealthy parents of one of the boys on this trip to see if they have heard anything.

The parents are ludicrous caricatures from some 30s comedy of upper-class society, and address each other by “Mr.” and “Mrs.” They haven’t heard from their son either and aren’t at all worried—he regularly doesn’t write, and after all, it’s quite unlikely that something would happen. And if something did, of course, it would be a tragedy, not an utterly expected blow. Bruce can’t even be angry at these people. When he is telling his girlfriend this story later, he says that it felt like these people are, somehow, innocent.

I went to a wedding recently filled with people who were, either by birth or by passage through a handful of elite universities, from the approximate stratum of Mr. and Mrs., and this word—innocent—kept ringing through my mind. Gologorsky had gotten, not the particulars, but the larger truth of the situation just right; these people really did live in a world where disaster was not a possibility. The worst that could happen to a person was the somewhat untimely death of a parent. (You need to be from certain strata to even have the concept of an untimely death.) And as I spent time in this crowd—with their intelligence, and energy, and enterprise, and loveliness—something about them actually scared me, because it seemed like they had no idea how much had to be sacrificed to keep their lives going on in this way; and also—this is the scary part—no idea how fragile it all was, and is, because such sacrifices by their very nature cannot be demanded from other people or the earth for long.

Stop Here is a book about people who are conscious of fragility, because for them the brink is always in plain sight, and they have no illusions that this country is running in any way for their benefit. Spend some time in this situation and you develop certain skills.

Here are a few of the important ones from the novel: How to keep dignity and sanity alive when mostly powerless, how to stay awake and hopeful enough to notice an opportunity for escape when it arrives (Gologorsky knows this one well, and it keeps the novel from being merely depressing)—and, finally, how to keep going when you lose something that you didn’t think you could live without.

You can sense, in certain people you meet, that while healing from wounds that have incapacitated others, something has been figured out about how and why to keep going. These people can be found anywhere, but for simple statistical reasons are often present in the social classes that America has decided to maim in the course of its ordinary economic and military functioning. There, in the gray neighborhoods, along with the innumerable victims, you can find a few people quietly picking their way through the wreckage and living on what can be salvaged, from the Haitian woman foraging greens by the drainage ditch (who was a little bemused by my interest) to the old man who collects the furniture that people are throwing away for want of a little work with a hammer.

Notice them—that is one of thoughts I carried with me after finishing this fine novel—they are more interesting than you imagine, and might know some things that you badly need to learn.

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