Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Hick by Andrea Portes

In 2007 I wrote the following study of a remarkable novel by Andrea Portes called Hick.  I met Portes shortly after at the bar in The Algonquin Hotel, an old NYC literary haunt, and stayed in touch with her periodically for years afterwards.  I preface the original article with a quote from the Unbridled Books blog by the Unbridled publisher, Fred Ramey.

June 19, 2007

Designating and Signifying

Well, I set out on this blogging day in response to the reports that the British pressis now hip to the cost of lead-rack display “opportunities” in chain bookstores. I was going to assert that we’ve recently had to consider this reality here as quite a few of our titles have begun to generate real momentum— HickDevils in the Sugar ShopThe Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, and the forthcoming The Pirate’s Daughter.
But, first, that path was leading me toward an assertion that is probably already wholly unnecessary: that, even while lamenting the shrinking markets for good books, the publishing industry supports promotional practices that marginalize the majority of their own titles. The post was to be something about “designated” and, therefore, undesignated books—a term I first heard at Putnam sales conferences. I wanted to get something in there too about Amazon’s selling the new Harry Potter at a loss and about what that used to be called . . .
But (second), all that was just depressing. No fun at all.
Then, this review  of Hick was posted at The Bohemian Aesthetic and raised my spirits. As always, Peter Quinones reviews a book by engaging with it. Given our commitment to publish novels that are deserving of re-reading, a review that takes one of them on its own terms (in this case, literally) is as fair and invigorating as it gets.




Andrea Portes' Hick (2007)





                                     Of course, the arrival of the search engine has changed the dynamic of the  trio of perspectives that come into play in the experiencing  of a work of fiction.  It's changed the reader's perspective dramatically because it puts clarification about people, places, things and situations at our fingertips within seconds; you can read a novel with a lot of allusions and name checking with complete comprehension today in about half the time it may have taken you before the web was here.  It's changed the author's perspective because of the flip side of the same issue - it 's opened up  access to amazing amounts of information for inclusion in a work, thereby making available infinitely more referents than were possible before.  And it's changed the way the characters in fictions behave too - the latest, most pervasive technology available in society usually finds its way into novels and stories immediately (think TV, or cars).  These might seem like trivial observations, and in a way they are.  That makes it all the more striking to come across a novel, written well into the internet age, in which none of the three things I just mentioned are applicable.  Hick could just as easily have been written, and taken place, in 1957 as in 2007.  There's nothing to look up here, and the characters certainly don't do or say anything that requires research.  In one respect this is the most challenging sort of novel because everybody in the trio of perspectives - author, reader, and characters - is required to call on their own resources, their own inner vigilance, to make it work.  The book creates highways of space inside our hearts that are as large as the highways in Nebraska and Wyoming  on which it is set.
                                    The history of the picaresque novel, from Lazarillo de Tormes to The Bushwhacked Piano, teaches us one overriding lesson - the tale more often than not has roots that come from deep inside  the author's own life.  Portes' book follows that general rule.  In a press release Q and A she's asked, "Who is the main character Luli McMullen based on?" The answer, "The main character is absolutely based on me as a teenager," is pretty unambiguous.  And what a main character she is, though I can say that with a little bit of cheating in the background.  I attended a reading Portes gave at a Greenwich Village bookstore, and was surprised when she read from the book in character, like an actress auditioning for a part.  The adventures of Luli McMullen, self narrated, slowly evolve into a way of perceiving the behavior of others, and the motivation behind that behavior, that leaves the essential, badly bruised, soul intact.  Damaged, jaded, but intact.  The first chapter and the last chapter end with the expression of the same exact thought - "I'm gonna grab something and make it go boom" - and this shows that the optimistic self confidence is there in Luli both before and after the atrocious main events of the story unwind.  Quite a few reviews of this book portray it as a depressing, downer story, which in my opinion it is not.  It's more of an affirmation of the POSSIBILITY of spirit. 


                                    The plot is pretty simple.  Thirteen year old Luli has dsyfunctional, problem drinker parents who don't treat her well.  In attempt to make a better life for herself she sets out for Vegas, running away, and meets a bunch of indiviuals who are not much better than her mom and dad. Portes makes use of a pretty familiar catalog of devices - the abused kid, the alcoholic parents, the hitcher's time on the road, the grotesque strangers who drift in and out of episodes, the sexual predators.  However, as I read the book a second and then a third time a pattern of signifiers, or codes, began to emerge which gives the book the kind of zing of authenticity that it has to have to make it stand apart from the umpteen-hundred other ones that chronicle these kinds of people in these kinds of situations (reading Portes alongside Raymond Carver, for example, might show you just how overrated an author he was). 
                                    When I say "signifiers" I mean either corporeal things or abstract concepts of thought that Luli interprets in the same way throughout the course of the story. The first of these that jumps out is a series of temporal references that she makes, both to the past and to the future, that indicate she might feel her life at the moment is merely a temporary way station between some profound mystical past and some much better future.  For example, she has the following meditation about Clement, one of the few truly decent people she meets in her travels: "I look up at Clement and he looks back at me, and it's like I met him eight million years ago before time began..." Similarly, in describing a problematic couple, she says "He and Glenda seem to have some private moment of unspoken meaning that goes back to before I was born."  These solipsistic remarks about the past recall Wittgenstein: " The world is my world."  And just as these unexplained, inexplicable past events hold only enigma, thinking about the future brings hope and curious wonder:

                                                            "Tomorrow I will be softer."

                                                            "I press my head sideways against the window, looking up at the black sky and the bunny ears in front of me, wondering whatand who will break my heart."
                                   
                                                            "She's one of those people you don't know about until something happens, something big.  And I'm wondering, as I look at her wheat-spun hair in the golden light, what, exactly, that something will be."
                                                           



                                    A second signifier comes in the guise of food or, more precisely, lack of food or, still, more precisely, creative, humorous ways to think about and describe the lack of proper nutrition; this is a device Portes uses to stress Luli's awareness of her's and her family's low social status.  Brian Tracy once said that food is like money in that when you have enough of it, you rarely think about it  at all but if you don't have enough of it you think about nothing else.  Luli is a prime example of that observation. We'll pick out some samples of Luli's musings about food.  There are many others to find as well, but here are a few:

                                                            "...a girl  just can't live on lollipops the way she can live off Snickers..."


                                                            "If you're still hungry you can have blue frosting on graham crackers for dessert.  There's also the option, sometimes, of a sugar sandwich, which involves two slices of white bread, buttered thick and spread with plain white sugar."

                                                            "I open the fridge for something to eat, but there's nothing but brown peaches and a half finished jar of relish."

                                                            "So that's it.  I make up my mind to find a sugar-daddy who will fawn over me and feed me whenever I'm hungry, not just with sugr sandwiches but with rich-people food."

And so on.  The acuity of her awareness of her low socio economic status is also signified by numerous comments about money, rich people, "wealthypeopleworld", etc.
                                    The third major signifier is something called "swirl" or "swirling" which denotes a complicated  sort of sexual relationship between men and women, a kind of frenzied, out of control desire on the part of  certain males and the recognition, on the part of females, that this is a potent weapon they can use to manipulate the fellas (who don't exactly have the ladies' best interests at heart, either - this is a kind of warfare).  Very early in the book a twenty eight year old sleazeball is trying to force himself on Luli, who's thirteen.  She says

                        I squirm away and look at him like his marbles got lost.  That thing swirling in his eyes, that thing, like he wants to jump into my body and devour me from the inside out, makes makes it like I could ask for whatever my little heart desired in this second and he would have to do it.

Later, when she meets the disgusting Eddie Keezer, almost the first thought she has is "I can tell I can make his eyes swirl and
and that's just about all I want to do."  She's eager to employ this new knowledge; however, in her tough innocence she's unaware that performing the swirling may get her what she wants in some ways but, in others, it can only bring trouble.  Again, a little later:"I'm gonna make his eyes swirl if it kills me."  Later, in talking about Glenda, another lowlife she meets on the road, she has the exact thought that her earlier attacker had: " ...it just so happens that when I look at Glenda, when I listen to Glenda, I get this feeling in my gut like I want to jump inside her..."  And so on throughout.
                                    This is a simple outline, but just to recap: there are three important codes we can look for to help us understand the novel comprehensively.  The codes concern time, food and money, and swirling.  These three form a large part of the way Luli thinks about, and perceives, her universe.  Another thing to look for, not as frequent perhaps as the others but still noticeable, is the psychological disposition towards danger or trouble, the tendency to like to hang out with negative people and derelicts.  In the interview I referred to above Portes responded to a question with "I love trouble.  I really do."  Luli says things like "But there's also a side of me that won't ever look away from a dead bird or a car chase or a hold up at the Alibi at 2 AM."  Portes told me that the root of this predisposition probably has something to do with moving around a lot as a youngster, which makes perfect sense, and that she has lost this inclincation as she's gotten older.
                                     I think it's also important to quickly mention the way certain parts of the text silently refer to or foreshadow others, which makes the book fun to read because it sharpens the saw of our alertness.  Early on a gun is described as "cockroach colored," a very bizarre description, but much later cockroaches come into play in the story in a kind of surprising way.  Also early, someone's body is described as a "question mark," a DEVICE that pops up two or three more times later on - a signal perhaps of the author's appreciation of the language.  And there are a number of individual glittering sentences that should just be framed and hung in the Smithsonian, for instance "She keeps adjusting and readjusting herself, like somewhere in the position of her belt lies true happiness."
                                    To conclude I want to make a brief point in a new historicism sort of way and a quick remark about some reflexitivities of the text.  As regards the first, the book of photographs by Wright Morris called God's Country and My People is an arresting collection of shots about the Nebraska plains that provides a wonderful framework of placement for curious readers who like to read a work of fiction against one of nonfiction. Also the road memoir called A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans by the great journalist David Lamb can serve the same purpose in regard to Hick.  Regarding the second, there are a few points in the book where the author winks directly at us,  for example channeling Truman Capote - in fact the very phrase "in cold blood" is used - and the film Bonnie and Clyde - here obliquely called The Actress and The Thief.  There's even an episode that brings to mind some of the despicable behavior from Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.
                                    I think Hick is extraordinary not only because it gives voice to a thirteen year old with exactitude and complete believeability, but also because it offers readers some important lessons in how to experience a novel.  It makes us react - laugh, cry, get angry - and never breeds indifference.  The success it is achieving in sales and notices is in my opinion very well deserved.

                                                          



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