SHE DROVE WITHOUT STOPPING
By Jaimy Gordon
Algonquin. 408 pp. $18.95
JANE KAPLAN TURNER is, at 20 years of age, "a half-baked adventuress who knows herself to be one." Jewish, bespectacled, bookish in a messy sort of way, she's the daughter of a philandering Baltimore lawyer and a wife who dabbles in pottery. Despite a precocious interest in sex, all young Jane really wants is for her father to love and protect her -- but that, alas, he fails most miserably to do:
"Only one person could have held his hand over me and saved me from everything, repelled even golden bullets, and kept me happy in my sex, where I am most betrayed. Far from shielding me from the world, he had been the very burgermeister of its wish to confer invisibility upon a girl like me. No sooner could I walk than he had not liked to see me at all. This was my father Philip Turner -- my blood boiled like pitch at the thought of his many insults to me -- and now he would have to pay."
This unrequited longing for her father's love, and Jane's self-destructive efforts to avenge herself upon him, are at the heart of Jaimy Gordon's new novel. Like Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, this is the story of a family and a daughter on the edge: an offbeat, moving, and very funny book.
It's the mid-'60s. Smart, reckless, sexually liberated but almost painfully naive when it comes to men, Jane has left college to live in an abandoned Ohio farmhouse with her new boyfriend Jimmy, especially acquired so that she won't have to live alone. Here the couple hold court with assorted "sambos, fairies and beatniks," an engaging if bizarre crew that wouldn't be out of place in Twin Peaks. In addition to artist manque Jimmy ("Until lately, I was a child prodigy . . . Then I became a bum"), Jane's admirers include Willie Usher, the middle-aged black owner of The Soul of Commerce Junk Store, who courts Jane in outrageous get-ups: "say, a plaid smoking jacket and blue foil birthday party hat, with a pair of rubber antlers strapped to his forehead." There's also Roger O. Booth, "an actor, not acting at present, Jimmy's childhood friend, formerly Albert Huzzy, of Rancho Mirage, California." Gordon's account of this beatnik idyll on a forsaken homestead is pure midsummer madness, culminating in "The Wedding of Bob and Louise," a play (in verse, and transcribed herein) interrupted by a trio of local yokels Up To No Good.
Jane's adventures take a macabre turn after this, precipitated by a particularly bizarre rape and its aftermath. Humiliated by the local sheriff and enraged by Jimmy's failure to save her, Jane leaves Ohio in her 1949 "honeygreen" Buick and returns to her parents in Baltimore. But once again her father disappoints her. He's finally left his wife, and now refuses to cooperate with Jane's increasingly shrill demands for financial support, let alone any emotional involvement with her. So Jane's off again, this time to Los Angeles to find Jimmy:
"She drove without stopping, not, of course, in the world of gas pumps, roadside diners, and highways like Route 50 . . . not in the literal world, but in that other world of endless serpentine blacktop parting the trees, down which Jane tracked her missing spirit by the white broken line of a ghostly lane divider, trying to overtake her in the land of the free." IN CALIFORNIA Jane still can't settle down, despite Jimmy's professions of love and the ardent friendship of Roger, now a movie star (he has one line in "The Corpse Who Loved Women"). Readers who miss the friends of the Soul of Commerce will be glad to meet the denizens of the skid-row bar where Jane finds work as a waitress. At first all seems well: Jimmy is painting, Jane has her writing published in G.R.O.P.E., The Global Rag of Psychedelic Emergency (A Monthly Sloughing of the Hypothesis). But then once again feckless Jane careens toward self-destruction, fueled by alcohol and her crazy need to find a man to "save" her.
Reading She Drove Without Stopping is a little like re-living one's own youth: not the parts bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia but the real stuff, the hilarious but hair-raising adventures you would never in a million years tell your parents. Gordon's prose is witty and stylish, the kind of unblinking feminist writing that isn't afraid to admit of a woman whooping it up all night, then waking next morning, disgusted and not a little elated to discover just how close to the edge she's crawled. Readers up to following Jane on her hell-bent journey are in for quite a trip.
Elizabeth Hand is the author of a forthcoming novel, "Winterlong."