Ernest Hemingway said, "All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened." Translation: If you're not getting an authentic experience from your fiction, blame the author, not the genre. Amid the current craze for memoir, it's a refreshing thought.
By Hemingway's formulation, Katie Crouch has written a great book. Her debut novel, Girls in Trucks, tells the story of a former debutante, Sarah Walters, who must adjust her South Carolina dreams to the harsh realities of life in New York. It has all the believable bad decisions, the unflinching sex, the spunk, and polish of an authentic Gen-X memoir, but it's fiction.
So what's Sarah's problem? She pops stolen Klonopin to cope with her nice-guy, Peace Corps boyfriend, because, let's face it, that shit is annoying. She flies halfway around the world to live in Peruvian hostels with a man she hardly knows, because, hey, it beats being alone. But she raises her daughter solo, because she doesn't want to share with the father, an unsuspecting one-night-stand.
Although Crouch never comes right out and says it, the problem is this: The life narrative we're given as children inevitably fails to coincide with the realities we face as adults.
It's a quintessentially modern dilemma, and one for which the author has a keen eye. In the Charleston of Sarah's youth, the ability to foxtrot is valued much more highly than the ability to determine when a relationship has become abusive. Girl learns to dance, has formal ball, gets married, gets buried. Predictably, exporting that mentality to Manhattan produces both hilarious faux pas and chest-numbing pain.
But it's Sarah's inability to take care of herself in love that really makes the story sting. Time and time again she gravitates to the wrong guy — to the abusive banker, the married German, the doofus backpacker — sacrificing elements of her life she truly values and punishing herself relentlessly for each bad decision.
And she knows her approach isn't working. Her meeting with Rob, the last in a string of doomed loves, is hailed with the following taut prose: "Sarah smiled. Was she faking? Maybe. But who cared? She was smiling."
Sarah's journey from the dreamed-of moth-eaten plantations of her youth to the stark studio apartments of her adulthood is accomplished in similarly spare style, culminating in a series of where-are-they-now vignettes that's strangely Victorian in hue. Each character gets her comeuppance: The bitchy rich friend succumbs to cancer and dies; the long-repressed mother finds unexpected love in a lesbian relationship; the fat girl raises a fat daughter. But Crouch's dénouement is less about developing a new narrative for life and more about appreciating randomness. Her conclusion — a moment's unreflective happiness on a sprawling porch — is pure Zen. (Little, Brown and Company, 256 pages, $21.99)
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