Joshilyn Jackson's 'Backseat Saints,' a brutal novel about domestic abuse

(Courtesy Of Harper - Courtesy Of Harper)
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By Carolyn See
Friday, June 18, 2010


By Joshilyn Jackson

Grand Central. 344 pp. $24.99

The subject of Joshilyn Jackson's powerful new novel is wife-beating. The beatings are rendered so graphically and mercilessly that you can't help being both sickened and mesmerized, and the story line is set up so that either the husband or the wife will have to die if their awful conflict is to end. This isn't a Gothic tale, but an ultra-realistic domestic drama narrated by a Southern housewife who spends her time between beatings making meatloaf and sweet tea.

Rose Mae Lolley was the prettiest girl in high school, originally from the little Alabama town of Fruiton. She dropped out, though, because of a terrible childhood; her mother ran off when Rose was only 8, leaving her in the care of a father who routinely beat her. When circumstances dictated that she run away, too, she waitressed her way around the South until she fetched up in Amarillo, Tex., where she married Thom, a bully whose father runs a chain of gun stores. Until now, Rose has made every effort to act the part of a good girl, and Thom actually tries once in a while to be a good husband, but not very hard.

To cope with being married to a creep like Thom, Rose invents an alter ego, Ro -- in fact, that is what her spouse calls her, too. Ro wears full skirts and ballerina flats and lives with awful Thom in a little brick starter house painted mint green. She works in her father-in-law's stores for minimum wage and faces an endless sea of shirts to be ironed, meals to be made, conjugal acts to be performed: "An hour before the sex, he'd held my head sideways in his big hand, my other cheek pressed into the cool plaster of the wall. I'd been pinned, limbs flailing helplessly sideways, while he ran four fast punches down one side of my back. Then he'd let me go and I'd slid down the wall into a heap and he'd said, 'Lord, Ro, why do you push me like that?' " (This occurs at the very beginning of the book; Thom is just getting started.)

Ro and Rose share a problem: Though they both inhabit the same body, one is good, one is bad. Ro is limitlessly perky and acts just the way (she thinks) her husband wants her to be. Her "bad" side, Rose, is a little more complex: She doesn't cheat on Thom, although he is obsessed with the idea; she doesn't drink or smoke; she rarely even fights back. Her "badness" consists of goading her husband into more and more brutality. Thom is portrayed as a one-dimensional monster here. His one weak excuse is that from time to time he must endure humiliating lectures from his own oafish dad.

Thom and Rose have come to a terrible impasse. It's kill or be killed. Neither of them is terribly bright; it never occurs to them that there's another way to live. But then Rose gets a literal Gypsy's warning. That is, someone who looks like a Gypsy does a tarot reading, telling her that it's a fight to the finish.

Could this woman possibly be the mother who abandoned her years ago? Does Rose (or Ro) have the guts to kill the wretched Thom? If Thom does make up his mind to kill his wife, will she be able to escape? Whom can she turn to, she who has scorned girls and women all her life and has only bully-men for friends? Questions like these keep the pages turning: The author is an expert at manipulating intricacies of plot.

All the way through, Joshilyn Jackson makes it seem as if the only way to stop a battering husband is to shoot his head off (not much comfort for women in the real world making meatloaf and enduring their own beatings). Wife-beating is still often condoned or ignored in this country, and shooting husbands is still against the law. But the author gives the reader no real solution at all in this otherwise interesting book.

See regularly reviews books for The Post.

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