Sunday, April 19, 2009

Made in the U.S.A

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At the beginning of Made in the U.S.A, Billie Letts thanks circus performers, medical professionals, people who guided her through Las Vegas, people who taught her about the survival strategies of the homeless; people knowledgeable about gymnastics, construction sites, golf balls and teenagers; the author of a trivia book; and the people at a piercing and tatoo parlor. You can tell that it's going to be an exciting read.

However, it wasn't quite what I expected. The two protagonists of the book are Lutie and Fate McFee, brother and sister. They've had very rough lives, and it gets worse during the first half of the novel. Their mother's dead, their father was an alcoholic who abandoned them to the care of his most recent girlfriend, who dies at the start of the book. Fleeing the spectre of foster homes, they light out to Las Vegas with less than $200 and only Lutie's learner's permit, in hopes of tracking down their father.

The news is not good, and the book gets very grim indeed at this point, as both tough, independent Lutie and sweet, quirky Fate are forced to grow up in a hurry. Utterly alone, they fend for themselves as best as two homeless children with no identification or permanent address can. You can probably imagine how, but Letts doesn't require you to.

Their luck miraculously turns at the moment when things can't get much worse. A guardian angel in the shape of a broken-down wire walker spirits them away, to the family he's been avoiding for more than fifteen years and to a reckoning for all three of them.

There's something I liked about this book, but it's hard to put my finger on what. The first half was utterly unrelenting. With each turn of the plot, you wonder how things could get worse for Lutie and Fate, only to find out the answer a few pages later. The second, happier half was a bit draggy, though. The ending seemed like a foregone conclusion pretty early on in the second half. The meaning of the title, too, still eludes me.

I'm guessing that what I liked about the book lies somewhere in Lutie and Fate. Lutie's not particularly likeable at first. She's snappish with her little brother, selfish, and constantly angry. But there's also something there that makes you root for her to turn it around. And Fate's just adorable, with his earnestness, his deep well of love and forgiveness, and his encyclopedic knowlege of all things trivial ("Did you know rats can have sex twenty times a day?").

This is my first Billie Letts book, although I've seen some of her others. I feel funny about saying I "enjoyed" a book with such vivid, graphic descriptions of what can become of homeless children, but I would definitely give another one of hers a try, and would reccomend this one.

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