Book Review: "Girlchild"

Girlchild: A Novel
By Tupelo Hassman
277 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $24.

In her debut novel, Girlchild, the improbably named Tupelo Hassman tells the story of Rory Dawn Hendrix, a girl in her early teens who lives with her mother in a trailer park in Reno, Nevada. The Hendrixes exist near the bottom of the social order, living their lives between a Nobility trailer, a truck stop, and one of the myriad casinos that pepper Reno. Their lives are focused almost entirely on survival, and the conditions under which they live are bleak.

The Hendrixes and their neighbors are, in other words, a group that most of the civilized world has given up on. Even their neighborhood, which Rory refers to as “the Calle” throughout the novel holds in its history a promise and a betrayal:

At the first curve off the I-395 a promise was erected of what was to come, bold white letters against a gold background, calle de las flores—come home to the new west. But soon after the first sewer lines were laid down and the first power lines were run up, the investors backed out because the Biggest Little City in the World was found to be exactly that, too little. With its dry, harsh climate and harsher reputation, Reno could not support suburbs of a middle-class kind, and the new home buyers needed to make the Calle’s property values thrive never arrived. Once the big money figured that out, the big money said adios and Calle de las Flores ended before it’d begun.

Eventually, “de las Flores”—“of flowers”—rots off the sign, and all that’s left is the “Calle,” suggesting that the characters who people this novel live out on the street, regardless of how warm their trailers get.

Even so, Rory and her mother and grandmother are for a time able to form a sort of feminine bower out in the high desert, with most men being unnamed, absent, or ineffectual. And yet it seems that the Hendrixes have tragedy and poverty in their bloodline, making it only a matter of time until what sad and miniature blisses they can form in the Calle are blown to pieces.

This description makes Girlchild sound either like poverty porn or like a vehicle for Oprah Winfrey-style uplift. Hassman flirts with the latter, and at times her novel threatens to collapse into sentimentality and melodrama. She is saved by a streak of experimentalism that runs throughout the book, which features very short chapters written in a variety of styles. The major voice is Rory’s, of course, which at its best recalls Alice Walker’s Celie in its simplicity and pathos—but other chapters are composed as dispassionate sociology, blackly humorous mathematical equations, and parodies of the language of the Girl Scout handbook. Hassman’s narration stubbornly refuses to stand still, much to its credit.

The charge of poverty porn, meanwhile, shouldn’t gain much traction among people who read the novel. Hassman refuses either to romanticize the lives of her characters or to gawk at them. We’re invited into Rory’s world, and we see things that horrify and delight us, but Hassman loves and understands these people too well to allow us to treat them like tourist attractions.

And yet, while Girlchild is an emotionally rich and moving novel, Hassman cannot quite hold onto it. She introduces elements—child molestation, girl scouts, the sad case of Vivian Buck, who was sterilized for being “feeble-minded”—in a way that suggests she intends to wrap them all together, and yet these connections never get made. Rory’s autobiography remains a bit of a jumble, not in the skillful way suggested by the changing narration, but in a way that suggests Hassman wanted to include everything she possibly could. This is not an uncommon problem among first-time novelists, of course, and Hassman clearly has a great deal of talent.

In the end, Girlchild is at its most effective in its emotional fullness and in its ability to stir reader sympathy for a group that most novelists largely stay away from—the group of lower-class whites often pejoratively called “trailer trash.” Hassman’s deep understanding of and clear affection for even the most indolent people in the Calle raises them into the subject of something approaching high art.

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