nolead begins By Annie Dewitt
176 pp. $15.
nolead ends nolead begins
In the loam of literary America, few ingredients have proved so fertile as dysfunctional families. This needn't feel like a fallback. Quite the contrary, it can yield a sweet discovery like Annie Dewitt's debut,
White Nights in Split Town City
. Alive with the poetry of a shaken pubescent girl walking on eggshells at home, the novel then goes one better, getting its narrator out into a wider community - one she discovers is riddled with cracks.
Fay Mountain is home to Jean, Dewitt's narrator, "twelve going on thirteen" and rendered more awkward still by a growth spurt. The novel's opening shows us a Jeep full of teenagers, with plenty of beer and the youngest clinging to the top, hurtling down a mountain trail out back of Jean's home till it reaches "the macadam," where it surfs "over the frost heaves and skids of gravel."
Though the year is 1990, and though the first Gulf War looms as a metaphor for the war in Jean's home (a metaphor belabored a bit, with transcriptions off CNN), life on Fay Mountain feels like a pastoral throwback. Compounding the strangeness, we are not in the South, but in rural Massachusetts. A number of Jean's neighbors keep horses in these woods, and when illness carries away a few animals, it's a major development. The Hausers next door, in particular, expose a nuttiness that is equal parts charming and threatening. When Otto Hauser buries one of his horses and burns its infected tack, the bonfire comes to feel like a ritual, almost Faulknerian, illuminating an entire sick society.
White Nights gets across a sense of the mother, a pretty woman with some artistic spark who chafes at a home on "the wayside of life." So, too, we nod knowingly at a later surprise up Mama's sleeve. But Jean's father never emerges from the preadolescent fog. Whatever defines his commitment to his wife remains murky - though the scene in which he rebuffs another woman's advances is a triumph.
Rewarding passages crop up again and again, altogether outweighing the disappointments. Those include an odd, occasional prudishness; when Jean spies on her parents in bed, she backs off just as most kids would start really paying attention, and worse, she never clarifies why. The novel's last 10 pages also work as though with eyes averted, fumbling every which way for a closing image. Still, the climax puts the girl through a long night's gauntlet of romantic complications, a rite of passage unique in that it's Jean who calls most of the shots. What scars remain she'll wear proudly.