About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

119 - The Local News

Trying a slightly new approach here.

My 119th book of the year (wow, do I need to get out more!) was The Local News, by Miriam Gershow (Spiegel & Grau, 2009).

Dust jacket blurb: "Even a decade later, the memories of the year Lydia Pasternak turned sixteen continue to haunt her. As a teenager, Lydia lived in her older brother's shadow. While Danny's athletic skills and good looks established his place with the popular set at school, Lydia's smarts relegated her to the sidelines, where she rolled her eyes at her brother and his meathead friends and suffered his casual cruelty with resigned bewilderment. Though a part of her secretly wished for a return of the easy friendship she and Danny shared as children, another part of her wished Danny would just vanish. And then, one night, he did."

Maybe I'm easy, but both this one and the book that followed it were far better and more thought-provoking than I'd expected them to be. It's always a pleasant surprise when that happens, like getting dragged along to a party where you actually end up having a great time in spite of yourself.

Or maybe I'm just a sucker for smart but lonely high school students. Lydia, our narrator and protagonist, was both even before her brother's disappearance, which transforms her overnight from mere invisibility to downright alienation. The initial chapters, set after the shock of Danny's vanishing has begun to dissipate and the local shopkeepers are no longer so willing to display his "Missing" posters, introduce the themes we and Lydia will become intimately familiar with in the months and chapters to come: the inadequacy of others' good intentions and her own unspoken guilt at not grieving Danny's loss more deeply. Even years after the fact, she fumes silently at a support group meeting:
"Finding myself backed into the overly familiar terrain of heartache and desperation brought out the worst in me. I was cornered, wanting to scream or kick my chair over or run my nails along the chalkboard where the woman had made us brainstorm a list of feeling words about our siblings (love, confusion, fear, sadness, the list began, predictably). I wanted to reel off my own list of shitty things Danny had done to me when we were teenagers (calling me the titless wonder, mashing my face in a pillow once until I couldn't breathe, ignoring me in front of his friends). I wanted to be irreverent and inappropriate. I wanted to shake up the righteous anguish. Going missing, I wanted to yell from some deep, dark pit in the middle of me, was the only interesting thing my brother had ever done."
Perhaps most heartbreaking is Lydia's description of her parents' collapse into numbness, so bereft at the loss of their son that they scarcely notice their daughter:
"We couldn't keep the refrigerator stocked; its contents dwindled to bread heels and condiments in a matter of days. My mom started smoking again, years after having quit. Her energy was both frenetic and focused: she designed posters, concocted overly elaborate phone trees to recruit people for the area sweep searches, and added to her steadily growing stack of index cards, each one scribbled with a 'clue' to helo the police. ... My father became quietly obsessed with the TV news -- local, national, international, as if he couldn't rule out any possibility. Maybe Danny was part of the throngs of Bosnian Serb refugees; maybe he'd been victim to the floods in the Philippines. Dad could go days without speaking. He could sit for hours ... in his sunken chair without once getting up. And we kept running out of toilet paper. Over and over again we had to use tissues instead, until those ran out too and we moved to paper towels, which quickly clogged the pipes. I'd never before had to think about the supply of toilet paper in our household. It had always simply been there. I was fifteen. Up to that point, I'd believed that the world more or less worked -- toilet paper sat on its roll, dinner was served hot at the table, everyone came home at the end of a day -- simply because it was supposed to and it always had."
Unusually perceptive, Lydia describes the "uncomfortable stillness" and "impermeable smell of neglect" which pervade her family's home. She wakes one night to find her father rummaging through Danny's room, making an unearthly sound "like nothing I'd heard from him before, not even after that first night Danny did not return and the next morning and then the night again, when it was clear something had gone terribly wrong. It was a throaty hum of a noise, high-pitched and childish-sounding. No, dog-sounding. He was whimpering."

Only with her best friend, the slight and equally brainy David, can Lydia let her guard down and just be herself. Even that changes, though, when an unexpected and ill-timed kiss renders their once-easy closeness stilted and suspect. "[H]e'd crossed a line, a line which I knew -- instantaneously -- we couldn't just cross back from with the hopes that everything would revert to its rightful place. He'd changed things, created a moment after which nothing would be the same. I already had one of those, recently acquired. One was too much. I couldn't have another. Not now."

Instead, she lets herself be befriended by Lola Pepper, the terminally perky flag team girl ("one significant and humiliating step down in the Franklin High hierarchy from the actual cheerleaders") who's apparently transferred her dogged pursuit of Danny to his sister. Lydia alternately pities and looks down on Lola, but accepts her friendship and invitations for their sheer undemandingness. "It was hard to stay prickly in Lola's world, pliant and fluffy as it was." The two play Hungry Hungry Hippos, Lite Brite, and other long-outgrown toys that still line Lola's closets. She also forges a wary connection with Tip, Danny's best friend and the last person to have seen him, a musclehead who, in his less-than-articulate way, nonetheless "gets" Lydia's isolation:
"'Your problem, Pasternak, is that you're like this little grown-up already. Nobody f-----g knows what to do with you. But like give it a few years. Give it college or something. I don't know, after college, when you have some job running the world and the rest of us are just your little employees, you're going to be like a total guy killer, with like a male secretary and shit."
And then there's Denis Jiminez, the detective assigned to Danny's case. Not only does Denis actually notice and listen to Lydia, he also maintains a "steadfast indifference toward Danny" rather than "[surrendering] to the tales of charisma and popularity and charm and [being] taken in like the rest of them." He even ventures to ask Lydia if she misses her brother, and after a brief flurry of "'Sure. I mean, of course," the floodgates open:
"I talked quickly then -- it came out in a rush -- about the oppressive, nearly suffocating quiet of the house now, but at least we were free of the ever-present vigilance of the tracking and cataloging of Danny Pasternak's every move. I described the countless evenings of waiting for him to get home from swim or football practice as the spaghetti sauce simmered on the stove and my parents busied themselves with tasks, my mother wiping down the dinner table, my father sorting through the mail, but really, all of us just waiting to see if he would come bursting through the door after a missed pass or a butterfly stroke that clocked nineteen seconds slower than usual, full of venom and glowering. Those were dinners spent gingerly passing the rolls, the three of us making polite conversayion, trying to avoid the vitriol that could roll so easily off his tongue ... as my parents impotently chided him.

"I told him about the time when Danny jammed my bedroom door closed with his desk chair so I was trapped inside for hours until my parents got home from work. I told him about when Danny ripped my National Junior Honor Society certificate off the fridge and then denied it when my dad found it torn to bits in the garbage. ...

"I told him then about the whole titless wonder thing, about Danny one time kicking me in the shin and leaving a flowery bruise, about splattering bleach on one of my favorite shirts. I was no longer worried about humiliating myself, instead feeling like this was my chance to shift things permanently, to ensure that Denis would never be lulled by the gravitational pull of all things Danny."
Not surprisingly, Denis's attention and kindness give rise to a wee crush on Lydia's part, inspiring her to put so much effort into organizing clues and leads that he starts to question her motives.

Gershow's take on Lydia seems pitch-perfect, making the reader (at least this one) recall her own awkward, square-peg-in-round-hole adolescence, and then imagine what it would be like to have that overlaid with a tragedy that utterly shatters your family. Lydia describes her sixteenth birthday as "one of those recidivist cold days ... an event marked by almost no one." She's given Lola a fake birth date "to avoid the brownie-and-Rice-Krispies-treat tower, the You look like a monkey and you smell like one too that was a birthday at Lola's lunch table." David, who "had always made me handmade birthday cards on his computer, with inappropriate quotes ... or with pictures of fractals or nebulae," tracks her down as she's leaving school and shoves a card into her hand, but their conversation is artificial, and the card itself downright perplexing:
"It turned out to be store-bought, with a pastel drawing on the front of deer in a field. Inside was a printed poem following a basic meter and simple rhyme scheme (The seasons are turning, one line read; which means you are growing and learning, read the next). At the bottom David had written simply Happy Birthday and signed his name. I was a little surprised. Had he meant it, I wondered, as a bit of a dig? Did he think me now the sort of person we'd always made fun of, the kind who liked this Hallmarky sort of bad poetry?"
She does pass her road test, but freezes up on the drive home and ultimately, humiliatingly, needs to let her father take the wheel. A few months later, as the school year winds down, she's just begun to enjoy ordinary people and pleasures (like the flag team's end-of-year banquet) when Danny's case again takes center stage, a painful and abrupt reminder that Lydia's life will never be normal.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending, which takes place at Lydia's ten-year high school reunion. On one hand, it seems a bit tacked-on; on the other, I do appreciate Gershow's restraint in not using this setting as an excuse to wrap everything up in tidy little packages. The effect is less like the Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows epilogue, which is so pat and perfect it seems a cop-out, and more like Prep, where the protagonist has to be an adult looking back on her teenage years to have the perspective she does. Ultimately, Lydia comes to grips with the loss of what might have been, not just in terms of her own coming of age, but the chance to know and love her brother as an adult.

I'm never good at pithy concluding statements (heck, I'm not much good at pithy anything) but all in all, it was a good read: poignant, funny, believable, and sweet. I may even want to own this one.

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