by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
There are many countries within a country. West Virginia—with its pain of poverty, its mountainous beauty, and the harshness of its gendered social structures—is one particular kind of country within the United States. Imprisonment is another country all its own: America has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world—twenty-two percent of the world’s entire prisoner population. In Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run (Algonquin Books), one young woman prisoner stumbles out of a Georgia prison in 2007, released early after eighteen years of time for manslaughter. Jodi, now in her mid thirties, stumbles back toward the remnants of the life she upended at age seventeen—back toward West Virginia. Along the way, she wades through her own tender memories of a lost love, struggles toward a kind of penance, and tries to build a new sense of family. Hers is a troubled homecoming, a late coming-of-age through a brutal American landscape.
So begins Maren’s hard-bitten debut, a noir with sentences that embody the harsh beauty of the Appalachian atmosphere it evokes. Jodi’s teenaged memories of 1988 are told in the clipped present tense, a romantic, urgent unspooling before a final brutality. Paula, Jodi’s first love, “seems to her to be weightless, free of all normal responsibilities and constantly on the verge of something dangerous and great. There is a velocity to her that pulls you close. Her life lived like the coil before the strike.” When Jodi follows Paula across the border into Mexico, exploding with her into armed robbery, drugs, and gambling dens, their shared criminality merges into uncontrollable, romantic destiny: “she’s grafted her happiness onto this life with Paula; the flash and burn of it, the somewhere new each night and we don’t need anything but each other . . . Paula is her family and the idea of herself without Paula is like the thought of amputation.”
Maren draws a sharp portrait of the truncated lives America forces on its formerly incarcerated citizens. Jodi’s re-entry into society is a purgatory of bus rides, borrowing money, cheap motels, and rejected job applications from American big-box stores. Abandoned by state apparatuses, scorned and then manipulated by blood relatives, Jodi’s life after prison does not so much move as it careens. First, into a new love affair with Miranda, a seemingly sunny young mother as ravenous for affection, and prone to error, as Jodi is. Together, they run headlong into the formation of a new, precarious family with Miranda’s small sons and Ricky, a young man from Jodi’s past; the abused child Paula said, back in the 1980s, that they should rescue together, with the money from their robberies.
Sugar Run propels us into the soul of Jodi, her penchant for mistakes alongside her power to hope. Through disasters self-made and imposed, Jodi still carries the ability to love, to nurture, in a near-apocalyptic country that refuses to nurture her. Maren casts an acidic eye on America’s blithe classism, even within LGBTQ interactions: “Alone in her cell she’d felt so far from their talk of solidarity, so far outside their supposed community. She’d thrown away their letters. They reeked of privilege, the clean white pages soggy with their ‘compassion,’ perfumed with the need to ‘understand.’” When Jodi finds her ancestral home has been claimed by a wealthy buyer out of state, a sympathetic but ineffective lawyer begins his meeting with her by praising hand-dripped, organic coffee. “This man, Jodi thought, carried with him a nearly visible halo of money-education-confidence-ease, a gauzy light of protection, and even as he spoke kindly to her she could barely stand to listen.”
And there is a tenderness with which Maren evokes the pain of the atmosphere: the drug use, the terrifying homophobia, the stranglehold of an oligarchic economy. The West Virginia landscape—always a balm for Jodi—holds not only the peace of nature but the comfort of rare solidity: “The bruising weight of her body against that hard earth felt satisfying, like it might beat this wild sadness out of her for good.”
Jodi cannot and does not flee her past: she circles it and plunges back, still in search of the redemptive dreams she and Paula sought to fulfill through their wild runs against the law. With Sugar Run, Maren evokes the queer urge toward rescue, the beating back against an untrammeled sense of trauma, the affection and terror augmented by pills, crack, adrenaline, sex, and sorrow. We have never had a noir protagonist quite like Jodi, and her final, climactic decision, gun in hand again, leaves us wanting to follow her deep into her beloved West Virginia forest, aching to know what’s next.
Elsewhere in women’s worlds of criminality: Helene Tursten’s slim tome, An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good (Soho Press), is physically small, unremarkable, and self-explanatory, much like the main character its stories follow. Translated in a terse, straightforward tone from the Swedish, the book is a collection of linked, standalone short stories featuring one main character, Maud. Maud has little backstory, few personal complications, and no friends, family or pets as companions.
What Maud possesses—besides a commodious, rent-free apartment—is a constant, unrestrained, malicious sense of impunity. That, alongside Maud’s ability to take advantage of onlookers’ underestimations of her, make this book read like a satirical warning against the perils of ageism.
Each small story in this collection sees Maud committing a new murder with no sense of conscience—only pragmatism. The first is arguably the most absurd, involving a penis statue and a blogging, anti-patriarchal celebrity; another involves that old murderous classic, a staircase. Tursten is also the author of Sweden’s celebrated Detective Inspector Irene Huss stories, and Huss does make a cameo in the final tale, as authorities draw close to the truth of Maud’s diabolical senior moments.
This story collection is neither a deep character study nor a complex set of procedurals. An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good is the narrative equivalent of sweet and salty candy; a wince-and-giggle-inducing collection just long enough for a short flight (dare I say, down a set of stairs).