IN “FLEE,” the final story in Alden Jones’s first collection of stories, Unaccompanied Minors, Zoe is a future-uncertain girl hiking and camping in the Tennessee wilderness with a bunch of other troubled young folks. It’s one of those Outward Bound-style odysseys of self-reliance and discipline. At first, to us, Zoe’s troubles seem to have started in New York City when, as an NYU student, she left her dorm, moved into an East Village apartment, then altogether dropped out to spend her days in front of a TV hitting the bong and chain-smoking cigarettes—a part of her past she’s already related to the mostly spoiled-sounding overgrown teens participating in a program called FLEX (short for “Florida Expeditions”):
I’d told them how I’d lost interest in things, in school, in my friends—I didn’t try to tell them why. Just that I’d wound up back in the house of my childhood. In Darien, Connecticut.
Not allowed even caffeine or nicotine, they have as their only stimulation fresh air and perilous, character-building climbs up mountain crags and across logs bridging swift and rocky streams. In the meantime they are forced to confront not only themselves but one another. Zoe fears kitchen work for its male-hegemonic subjugations, and athletic, hippie Anna—to whom Zoe gradually feels an attraction—is getting sick of doing all of the cooking and cleaning. Ryan is afraid of the peanuts that in so much as an airborne form could trigger a deadly allergic reaction:
Bob chose FLEX because it came without twelve steps or therapy, and he wasn’t ready to give up drugs, or even think about it hard.
With these seemingly prosaic elements delineating the problems, real or imagined, of the coddled middle class, Jones agitates her material, allowing her characters’ tempers to flare (often hilariously), and gradually tightening the tension in Zoe, whose need for intimacy takes her on all manner of unexpected internal turns as the story veers dramatically, and realistically, then arrives at an unexpected yet wholly credible place—without sounding sentimental or condescending.
Unaccompanied Minors is the 2013 winner of the New American Fiction Prize (judged by esteemed story writer Kyle Minor) and contains seven stories linked by the theme of young people left to their own devices. Jones is savvy about the substances, drug and drink, but where she is especially original and moving is in exposing the thin crevices through which the dim light of burgeoning sexuality peeps. Nor does she limit herself to showing the lives of the Peter Pans and Wendys of modern American suburbia. Jones’s first book, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir From Costa Rica to Cambodia, was a witty and daring chronicle of her obsession with being not a tourist but a traveler: dropping into a foreign setting and hoping to fade into the local scenery. Two of the longest and most ambitious stories in Unaccompanied Minors, “Heathens” and “Sin Alley,” pick up where she left off in those travelogue chapters that detailed her time as a teacher in a small town in Costa Rica. Taking the second person point of view, “Heathens” cleverly addresses a somewhat prissy but mostly too-young and naive American girl on a mission to help win souls for her evangelical church. For some time we’re asking ourselves whether the speaker is a “Tica” or a Gringa, an angry local or a too-proud and bitter (and perhaps infatuated) American playing a perverse game.
But in “Sin Alley” Jones goes full-tilt into the country’s capital, San José, where her main character Oscar, a poor but upwardly mobile gay bar employee, goes in search of the boy prostitute he previously hired and loves and hopes to save. From the start, the journey is disorienting, taking us into a ghetto to the gated house of male madam Cinderella, who’s rather Genet-worthy, and whose own motives in life are intriguingly ambiguous. As Oscar approaches, shakes the gate’s bars, and shouts to be let in, we think we’ve left all cushy traces of America behind. He’s met by the boy keeping the door, who leads Oscar through minefields of dog shit into the sordid home and immediately offers him a hand job (“Just five thousand. I’m cheap but I’m good.”). The price is whittled down to two thousand colones (a thousand going to Cinderella for the space), before the deed is done and the kid beckons him farther in, to a salon where boys waiting for their next jobs sprawl on broken velvet furniture drinking Imperial beers and watching TV (and where a faded poster of a red-latexed Britney Spears hangs on the wall).
Living with the sister he helps feed and her daughter, Oscar seeks a route out of the practical despair of the pregnancy-and-poverty cycle, but what he’s chosen (or rather what’s chosen him, since Oscar is the only self-aware homosexual in the story), is equally fraught with loneliness and uncertainty. The object of his love is Martín, who of course isn’t “gay,” not a reina. For every touch beyond the perfunctory fellatio Oscar has to beg—and when he’s not paying there’s no Martín, who spends all his money and time with his girlfriend:
“Listen, Oscar, you’re good people, but I don’t want to hang out with you all the time. I don’t understand tipos like you. You’re masculine, but you’re gay. You seem all mixed up, and I’m not in a mood to get mixed up myself.”
Cinderella, in his cheap satin bathrobe, stirs lard into beans and rice and advises Oscar to let some of the other guys fight over him. When Oscar asks for shreds of information about Martín, Cinderella replies wearily,
“Well, he’s just like all the other boys around here, completely ungrateful, gorgeous, with a nice big dick. Look at this, here I am, slaving away over the stove, spending all my money on them, and do you think one of them will thank me for giving them a hot meal when no one else will. These boys have sucked me dry. At least Lorenzo mopped the hall for me today.”
And then when the wounded Oscar learns too much about his beloved Martín:
Cinderella gave Oscar a pitying smile. “Yes, cariño. His girlfriend. All of these cacheros have girlfriends to prove they’re so macho, and then they have to have eleven kids. They don’t even know how gay they are.”
As in The Blind Masseuse, no matter the cast of characters or the milieu, Jones makes no major and foreboding pronouncements—ethnographic, sociological or whatever. In “FLEE,” when Zoe begins to see Anna differently and more desperately, it comes as much as a surprise to her as to us. In the freshness and spontaneity of her writing Jones is the vessel of a deeper vision:
I thought, I could love her, Anna Verges. Her black hair was tangled and her head was buried inside it, frozen in the posture of remorse, as she weakly blinked over her blank stare. Darkness spread inside her; I could see it, and the way it could not leak out. All because she’d held us up. Been afraid.
I thought, Anna, I could help you.
Jones is not delving in YA, but is writing about the teens and early twenties from the perspective of an adult for an adult audience. What is most enlightening and intriguing is that she does not make apologies for her young characters or dabble in angsty, point-and-blame determinism. There are no easy answers for Chloe, Martín or Oscar. But since so much of life is still ahead for them, there is a chance for, if not redemption, that corny American trope, then at least a change of direction, luck, and hope.