Pioneer Grit and Newfangled Novels
By Tom Doyal
APRIL 20, 1998: On a gray, drizzly March afternoon which matched my low-grade, self-indulgent, melancholy mood perfectly, I drove out of Austin toward one of the legendary Hill Country towns and my scheduled interview with writer Debra Monroe. I had done my homework at the gentle insistence of my editor. I knew that Monroe had two critically acclaimed short story collections out, and now a new novel that had its own bumblebee swarm of buzz going. I read the novel and laughed a lot. It made me look forward to the interview. The novel is titled Newfangled, and it sold out its first printing in less than three weeks. It appears to be one of those "breakthrough" literary feats. If you don't already know Ms. Monroe, it may be much harder to make her acquaintance in the future. She is slated to be much in demand in all of the places that matter.
I drove along watching the juniper-studded landscape slide by in the rain, turning here and there, following the directions carefully, at least the parts I had written down. It seems I may have quit taking notes in the middle somewhere and was forced to rely upon divine inspiration for the last leg of the journey, the best part really, a writer's dream. Deep in the Texas Hill Country, not too far from the river, on an unpaved country lane, in a cheerful yellow house with an aggressively friendly black lab who commenced his welcoming, prancing processional from the front porch, I found a writer's home.
Ms. Monroe issued forth into the front yard, greeting me, commanding the dog in English and Spanish, and looking absolutely smashing doing all of it. She is a beautiful woman. I was skeptical of the dust-cover photograph, having gratefully accepted the magic of photography a time or two my own vain self, but Debra Monroe looks every bit as glamorous as her photo. Later, when I asked about the photo and responses to it, she laughingly said, "Back lighting, you know. You pay extra for that."
We went into the house and passed through to a lovely sitting room with gleaming hardwood floors which made the room seem almost sunny. "The house ended there last year," she said, pointing back to the doorway into the dining room. "Then I built this part on and I did a lot of the work myself," she said, revealing her pride in her handcrafted home.
Monroe invited me to sit and left the room. I sat, thinking I was alone in the room, and began to take in my surroundings. I noticed lots of baby stuff, toys, pillows, and, finally, my eyes fell upon the incomparable Marie, Monroe's daughter of seven months, who was watching me serenely from her play pallet on the floor. I can't say much about her, because this isn't her article. (Time enough for that down the road; the word "inexorable" comes to mind.) Marie is a gurgling, cooing, laughing ebony cherub with intelligent eyes and an appetite for center stage. Finally, Marie found the adults just a bit boring and consented to take her nap.
Monroe took the other end of the couch and we began to talk about books and writing, and language, and recipes, and men, and... lots of other stuff. I began to envy Monroe's writing students at Southwest Texas State University, where she teaches creative writing. How wonderful for young writers to have the advantage of a teacher passionate about writing, and yet so self-effacing about it, as though these qualities were commonplace in the academy.
I had read Newfangled, of course, before coming for the interview. The title is apt and the book hard to sum up in a phrase. It is a funny book. ("No way in Admiral Byrd's white frozen hell will I cook for your daughter's wedding banquet and tend your illegitimate grandchildren.") Not only will you laugh; you will feel your heart break. The book is suffused with love for humanity, especially for those fools of us who may identify as panting fumblers in the service of love.
Maidie Giddings Kramer Bonasso, the protagonist of Newfangled, has managed to escape her family of origin, most of whom are still unhappily mired in the Minnesota mud in small towns of such confinement that great quantities of alcohol are a necessary daily tonic to get by. Maidie manages, almost by accident in the beginning and later by dint of perseverance, to get an education, the first among her kin to do so. Life among the brittle shards of her family has not prepared her well to build other relationships once she is on her own in the world. Friendships made and abandoned, marriages begun on slender hope and quickly ended in bitter determination to leave pain behind, jobs here and there, new places to live, in different states of mind and geography, until Maidie is frozen inside. "She'd turned hollow, having fired and rehired the staff of her life so often."
The Great American Cure for personal unhappiness is traditionally that pioneer remedy, to gather up your gumption and move to the frontier, find a new place, a new life, a new love. Monroe's book suggests that the limitations of our time may best be confronted not by fleeing to the unsettled frontier for a new beginning, but by taking root and making a life where one is. Can it be that she has turned "pioneer grit" inside out like a sock in the laundry?
Maidie's story is compelling, funny, and not the usual fare of contemporary novels. Her voice is not that of the class which usually finds its way into modern novels. Monroe commented to me during our time together that the theoretically classless society we live in is obsessed with the tiniest nuances and gradations of class. She has a keen eye and an even keener ear for this phenomenon. This attention to class informs her writing. There are some sensibilities developed in 17 years of waitressing which can't be purchased at a summer writers conference, for any price.
I asked Monroe how she came to be a writer. She recalled reading her first book in first grade and then putting it down and trying to write one herself. She was, from that time forward, a voracious reader who wanted to write. It is a long journey from the frozen mud of Spooner, Wisconsin, to the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which reviewer Evelin Sullivan said of Newfangled, "The novel, which charts the evolution of a modern lost soul - and in the process delights heart and mind - is written with the seemingly effortless grace that is the hallmark of true mastery."
Monroe is the author of two earlier short story collections, The Source of Trouble (Simon & Schuster, 1990) and A Wild Cold State (Scribners, 1995). Both collections were critically acclaimed, with the former winning the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the latter appearing on best books lists in Elle and Vanity Fair.
I dipped into a borrowed copy of The Source of Trouble and read the first story: "My Sister Had Seven Husbands." I swear to god that story is funny, as funny as one of my all-time favorite funny short stories, "Why I Live at the PO" by the sainted Eudora Welty. If your origins are that of working-class, out-of-work, got nothin' but a vicious tongue, an untrained mind, and plenty o' resentment toward the rest of those children of privilege, Debra Monroe can make you, too, believe we got the better part of the bargain. She tells our story with heart, ribaldry, and native wit.
If you don't already know the work of Debra Monroe, get thee hence and remedy your lack. As for me, I was quite surprised to step out into the gray afternoon again. For a while there, I thought the sun was shining in that cheery little parlor. I am now plotting my strategy for being invited back, maybe for a picnic near the river with Debra Monroe and sweet, sweet Marie. I am pretty smitten and that ain't the Prozac talkin', baby.
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