Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The People In Your Neighborhood

A couple of years ago, I read a book of short stories set in the American West. It had a few of the usual suspects, but many authors I'd never heard of. The book was terrific, and introduced me to Mark Jude Poirer. I read a great novel by him, called Goats, and then I promptly forgot about his existence until this last trip to the library, where I happened to bump into one of his books, Modern Ranch Living.

The book is set during one hot, transformative Tuscon summer. There are two protagonists (the jacket promises three, but there are two, trust me.) Kendra is sixteen. She's into fitness and working out, and has these bizarre anger issues that even she doesn't really understand. She's working hard to get control of them. She is what one might call a "social loner". There are a couple of people she hangs out with -- her brother, the boy next door, a couple of guys from the gym, this dude that used to go to school with her but transferred -- but she isn't really close to any of them.

She also has the strangest way of talking. "Plussing as which" is sort of her catchphrase, used in context like: "Plussing as which, you'll get a sunburn if you stay out here too much longer." She has a hard time censoring her thoughts, too. In one incident, she was forced to compose a letter of apology to a neighbor lady. The lady always commented on Kendra's muscle tone, and one night in the grocery store, Kendra pointed out that the lady herself was fat and was purchasing nothing but bad food. Her therapist told her what to say in her apology letter, but she wasn't really sorry.

The other protagonist is Kendra's 30-year-old neighbor, Merv. Merv is stuck in a rather deep rut. His father died when he was fifteen, and that was just about the last thing to change in Merv's life. He still lives with his mother. He has the same friends as he did in high school, even though they're smug yuppies now. He manages a water park called Splash World, helps his mother deal with her mental health issues, and occasionally goes on dates.

The incident that sort of intertwines Kendra's and Merv's stories is the disapperance of the neighbor boy that Kendra used to fool around with on occasion. The disappearance remains mostly in the background, but it serves as sort of a catalyst for both of them. Kendra is frustrated by her inability to express herself to the police and signs up for an English class at the local community college. Merv is annoyed by the police officer's condescending attitude towards him, but also learns something disturbing about his father's death in the course of the investigation. These two things motivate him more in his job and in his life. By the end of the summer, and the story, both Merv and Kendra have managed to affect real change in their own lives.

The edges of this story are populated by fascinating characters. Kendra's parents used to be punk rockers, and now her father is a golf pro and her mother sells vintage toys at toy shows. Kendra's brother is the world's smartest professional wrestling fan. There's the bitchy and mysterious Brooke Luter, who's not exactly her brother's girlfriend, but kind of close. There's Raymond, the disabled man who hangs out in the wave pool at Merv's work and is always slipping him twenties in exchange for Merv's assistance. Merv's mother, who's terrified of house fires and has bad insomnia.

All in all, Modern Ranch Living is an enjoyable and thoughtful read.

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