“If I ever caught you spun, we’d be over. Only one of us gets to be fucked up at a time.”
What if all life choices are flawed? In her first novel, Little Green, Loretta Stinson, winner of the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in Fiction, introduces Janie Marek, a young girl with few options. Left an orphan in care of an indifferent stepmother, heartbreak propels Janie to run away at the age of sixteen. On the road and needing money, she enters a topless bar; after displaying her wares and lying about her age she is hired. Janie’s life will become worse.
Novels about abuse, rape, domestic violence, and other hopeless situations often beg the reader to suffer along with seemingly helpless characters as they bump into and barely recognize better choices. The finest of these writers—Mary Gaitskill, Dorothy Alison—create realities many readers never experience: a girl has to decide whether to strip or become a prostitute or use drugs (Gaitskill); a bad situation worsens with no way out, as in Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina. So where will Stinson’s character go? Will Janie make a right choice?
Stinson’s prose propels the story, but her real strengths are dialogue and characterization. At the topless bar, the Habit, Janie meets Paul Jesse, an itinerant drug dealer; they have a moment, but she is not interested in pursuing the flirtation. After a couple months of saving up, she’s ready to head north, to Eugene; she thumbs it, accepts a ride, gets savagely raped, and returns to the bar beaten and in shock, where she sees more of Paul. He is ten-plus years her senior, an unshaven alcoholic roughneck and drug abuser with a history of domestic violence. Stinson creates a three dimensional character in Paul, who is able to recognize, when sober, some measure of his faults. He shows a soft and tender side to Janie and displays enough charm to convince Janie to move in with him—and then the proverbial downward spiral begins. All his redeeming qualities diminish, replaced by a pathologically self-centered, jealous, hypocritical, and insecure villain. Paul beats Janie, screws other drug-addled women without compunction, and when he takes Janie on one of his drug runs offers her as collateral: “As long as he didn’t rip off Bill and brought the money back in time, Janie would be fine. If he didn’t, Bill would get her strung out and sell her to a pimp he knew.”
Reading Janie’s misadventures can be frustrating, especially once the real Paul emerges. Her lack of experience fuels a naïve belief that she can make him change, but the source of this unexplained faith is never clear. Paul becomes enraged when she drinks or wants to use drugs: “If I ever caught you spun, we’d be over. Only one of us gets to be fucked up at a time.”
Then this: “Janie knew she stayed now because she was afraid to leave… He whispered in her ear, so close she could taste the crank on him, ‘If you ever left me I’d find you. I’d kill you before I let you leave me.’”
Janie finds support in unexpected places. One friend counsels, “if you ask a smoker they’ll say they know they have to quit but it means being uncomfortable. Until the smoker decides to live with discomfort there’s not much you can do.” Another, one of Paul’s coke whores, warns her, “Right now, I know more about you and Paul than you do. You think he’ll change and I know he won’t.”
Yet during Paul’s long absences Janie finds a job, other lifelines, and the reader begins to hope. Nevertheless, she keeps hoping against hope, giving Paul chance upon chance. When she serves up the Thanksgiving Day disaster of her home-cooked meal on a table made of an “old piece of plywood and two saw horses,” eaten by Paul’s meth-riddled friends as Paul is passed out, she seems more hurt and helpless than angry. Has she still not figured out that Paul is, well, not her best option?
Authentic narrations of drug use and abuse are not flashy and dramatic, but tempered by long periods of uncertainty, fear, and repeated mistakes. Victims are confused, scared, and rarely heroic. In seeking a better life, Janie’s passivity, her lack of agency in the cause of her own redemption, can be given a pass; the possibility that she might learn to recognize her choices and take action dawns only slowly. But Stinson’s admirable storytelling keeps the reader uncertain—and uncomfortable—until the very end.