Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Jewish Girl in Kansas

Slicker is the newest published work by Lucy Jackson, another psedonymous author.  Posh, the first book under this name, was compared to Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep.  I always felt that it was an unfair comparison  Prep was as full of anxiety and loss as Posh was full of love and acceptance.  Prep made me nervous, Posh left me feeling warm all over.  

These one word titles are bothersome.  I've been sitting here for a while, watching the clouds and the hawks ride the thermals as I try to remember if it ever rained while Desiree Christian-Cohen, our protagonist, was in New York or in Kansas.  There are wet clothes and robberies, but no bright yellow slickers (because aren't all slickers bright yellow?) as far as I can remember.  It must be a reference to Desi being a city slicker, but then why is there a girl in a raincoat on the cover?  I'm confused.

But that's the only confusing thing about this perfect book for the end of the summer.  Ms. Christian-Cohen (any doubt she's of mixed ethnicity?) decamps from New York to Honey Creek, Kansas, a town she chose randomly and in which she finds all kinds of people who are very different from those she's left behind. I'd look askance at her depiction of the narrowness of their lives were I not privileged to know The Bride and The Pharmacist, who lived in Olathe, Kansas for many more years than were good for them.  40 years ago, my neighbor left a small mid-western college mid-semester because his roommate kept looking for the horns and tail he knew with a righteous certainty his first-ever-in-a-lifetime Jew was hiding beneath that curly hair and those tight, New York blue jeans.  There really are those people out in the world today and it's a tribute to the author's skill that she is able to make her characters more than marginally interesting caricatures.  I was never tempted to write someone off entirely; even the Church Lady doppelganger is only trying to help.  

This is a book filled with delightful little details: a mother's joy when her 20 year old reverts to calling her Mommy, the sights and sounds of a walk in Manhattan, a care-giver's satisfaction at the end of a routine day.  Lucy Jackson has a way with the language that makes me wonder why she thinks that this little book was unworthy of her real name, the name under which she publishes her "serious novels." 

The plot is simple, the characters are not.  You could meet them on the street in your own home-town, even in New York City if you looked hard enough.  But Desiree has never seen anything like this before, and looking at America though her jaded but still able to be surprised eyes was absolutely charming.  This is a child who has none of the native New Yorker's inherent dismisiveness when it comes to "the other."  As all denizens of the greatest city in the world know, there is no place that can compare with Manhattan.  Other places may have their charms, but New York City is the epicenter of the universe and there's really no reason to argue the point.  Desiree is the perfect foil for Manhattan-meets-America. She's smart and thoughtful (she's a Yalie, after all) and "half-a-Jew" who comes equipped with homosexuality and aging relatives and a writer's notebook to finish off the portrait.  Lucy Jackson's ability to make this fish out of water find her sea-legs in the middle of the plains is seamless.  There's not a moment of psychic disconnect, no time when you're jolted out of the summertime in Kansas or August in New York by a "no way that happens like that" moment.   You are right there,  in the bereavement group or the Bambi Motel or the classroom, knowing that the words on the page could be happening right now someplace in the real world.  

Do you doubt me, denizens?  For those of you who write your own blogs, I offer this one snippet to prove my point.  Listen to two girls sharing "a moment"

"......and what I'm praying is that you're never going to write about this...."
Concealing that sharp prickle of excitement she's savoring now - knowing that for the first time in her life, there is, in fact, someone who regards her as a writer, Desiree says, "Of course I won't."
That her friend 
views her as the person she may very well be on the verge of becoming: one of those greedy souls who observes the lives of others and ruthlessly picks them clean, cannibalizing them for her art.  One of those who would sell her own family down the river for a couple of especially poignant or hilarious scenes or lines of dialogue.  Well, if this is who she is.... does she need to apologize for herself?  And what if it truly isn't possible to be, simultaneously, both a full-fledged mensch and a bona fide writer, what then?
If you haven't felt that way, then you're not trying hard enough, I think.  I've discussed this more than once with Lucy Jackson, and her response is always the same : being a writer is not easy.
 Spending a day or two with Desiree and the residents of Honey Creek is a piece of cake, though.  Try it.  You'll like it.

(If you click on the jacket image or the title of the book you'll go straight to where you can help keep the economy going, as Ben Bernancke recommends, by purchasing this little gem.  C'mon.... when's the last time you treated yourself to an end of the summer trinket?  And this one will fill your brain as well as your heart.)

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