Monday, February 8, 2010

Girl Trouble

If you’re a fan of short shorts (No, not those kind of short shorts), Holly Goddard Jones’ debut collection of stories, Girl Trouble, isn’t the book for you. At three hundred plus pages, Jones’ eight stories prefer a longer narrative arc, even in their shortest instances. In terms of style, her narrative voice, whether in first or third person, is nearly one without a quirk, which becomes its own idiosyncratic gesture in today's multi-styled world of fiction. In fact, in a Q-and-A session with her former teacher Nancy Zefaris at the end of the paperback P.S. edition, Jones admits that she “like[s] seriousness and sweep and—to one of [her] professor’s constant aggravation—exposition.”

In a few words, Jones is smooth, serious, heartfelt, not overly intellectualized, and yet not especially descriptive either, with no shock factor in her tone. Which is a good thing, because the subjects of Girl Trouble are sometimes shocking themselves, both in event and character. At their best, the contrast between the soft style of Jones’ narration and the violence of her stories fuels a building and occasionally breathless tension. (Conversely, in the one or two stories where her narrators or protagonists are adolescents, or adults looking back on adolescence, the stories disappoint precisely because this tension is lacking. It’s hard, looking back, to see the trembling immediacy in some coming-of-age moments, however much it may have felt so one at the time.)

Thematically, Jones’ characters are most often introduced to us as they struggle to stay afloat in the wake of larger, disastrous events. All of the stories are set in and around Roma, Kentucky, and its working-class environment. “Good Girl,” the opening story, tells us about Jacob, a widower whose troubled, apathetic son has just been arrested for raping a fifteen-year old girl. Jacob realizes he can’t move forward with his own life, especially with his own newfound relationship, until he completely lets go of his past, including his son. The story’s structure, which tunnels farther into the past as the plot builds, reflects this. And it’s a choice with which Jacob struggles. Is he paralyzed by grief or guilt? Maybe both. In “Parts,” the consequences of a college-age daughter’s brutal murder include the eventual rupture of her parent’s marriage. While the father moves on, remarries, and prepares to become a father again, the mother, who narrates the story, refuses to do so, because harboring the memory of her daughter, Felicia, requires her to. Or so she thinks. Here are her concluding remarks when she speaks of both her husband and her daughter: “…I believed, despite everything, if I gave enough of myself I could have them back again. That wanting it badly enough could make a difference.” Jones is also comic,though: In still another story, “Allegory of a Cave,” a father introduces his son, not only to the adult and surprisingly human version of himself, but also to the larger world around them, by taking him to a strip club one afternoon while the wife and mother goes Christmas shopping.

One of the strengths of Jones’ writing is that she’s willing to shoot for the moon, to embrace the emphatic gesture, to paint a canvas as broad as she can imagine, and to do it her way. First books should always be read with the notion of potential in mind, and there’s a lot of that in Girl Trouble. Perhaps Jones voice is best-suited for a novel. She herself, however, might resist such an idea, and it would be interesting to watch her master the challenges of writing big short stories. Either way, it will be more than noteworthy whatever she does next; it will be something to which we should give our attention.

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