When I think of jazz, I think of nonconformity, the slick scales running just ahead of or behind the downbeat—notes that surprise in their position, their relation to the ones that come before and after. If Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal were classified as music, it would be the jazz that permeates the novel’s backdrop of 1970s Greenwich Village, a heartbreaking counter-melody of adolescence, abuse, neglect, sexuality, and the struggle between family connection and freedom.
Rainey Royal, who originally appeared in Landis’s short story collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, is a 14-year-old girl living with her father, jazz celebrity Howard Royal. Also in the house is Howard’s friend, Gordy Vine, a man who shares Howard’s sexual partners, including Rainey’s mother. The trio is joined by a cohort of student musicians who take over the house, often including Rainey’s room, on a regular basis. Told in 14 narratives that span more than a decade, Rainey’s life is a complex struggle. Her mother left her for an ashram in Colorado and her father is uninterested in being responsible for a teenage girl. She is left to feign adulthood, both at home and out in the world.
Landis skillfully crafts an atmosphere in which sexual tension is a driving force in the Royals’ family dynamic. Rainey confesses that, “her father’s never touched her – it’s her fault she feels so bare in his presence, as if he were smiling and nodding right through her clothes. Relaxed, that’s how a chick should be, discussing sex with her father; casually slung.” Gordy continually tests the boundaries, sneaking into Rainey’s room at night to tuck her in and stroke her hair. Rainey wonders what her father and absent mother would think about Gordy’s nightly visits. “Gordy never says it is a secret, yet she senses that her silence is required.”
This misshapen development of female sexuality is a common thread in all 14 stories that comprise the novel, which center not only on Rainey, but also on her best friend Tina who’s sexual education also comes, largely, from the Royal household. Rainey Royal is about the consequences of sexual development, and how Rainey deals with the repercussions of staying in her childhood home, even if it means risking her emotional and physical security.
Landis’s command of the short story is impressive, but the packaging of 14 stories as a novel is, at times, troublesome. Repetition and pattern changes work in jazz, but in a novel, they can push the reader to the margins. Landis needlessly repeats certain information. In the first story, “Let Her Come Dancing All Afire,” Rainey is thinking about Gordy’s nightly visits, and Landis reveals that, “she has not told anyone but Tina.” Later, in “Trust,” Landis writes, “Tina is the only person on earth who knows about Gordy’s night visits.” The repetition of basic facts causes the reader to feel like Landis doesn’t trust the reader to retain details. Add to that some changes in the point of view, in which the scenes are filtered through Rainey’s friends, Tina and Leah, and the jazz breaks down. By the end of the book, Rainey Royal feels disjointed and less like a novel.
If there is anything that can make a reader forget about the structural flaws, it’s what Landis is able to do with a scene and a sentence. Landis uses short flashback sections to draw out the emotional grit of a scene. There’s a skillful, intuitive quality to the way these flashbacks are placed to deepen and intensify the characters’ interactions. In the middle of a scene where Gordy comes into Rainey’s room at night and gives her friend Tina a massage, touching her breasts as he pretends he only wants to give her a back rub, Landis drops a flashback in which Rainey remembers she “loves how she and Tina can sit in certain ways and force certain male teachers to look at them. Sometimes the teachers stammer. Sometimes the armpits of their shirts get dark. She and Tina have a code for it. They call it The Private Game.” This micro flashback adds another layer to the molestation, rather than softening the complicated sexual experimentation happening with her characters. Landis weaves it into the already repulsive act the reader is witnessing. Landis’s attention to the sentence is equally seductive: “Rainey’s father’s words unspool from her body as if expelling a magician’s silk scarf.”
Rainey Royal can seep into your skin like that girl you used to know—the girl who mastered seduction before she understood what it meant or how to control it, the girl who could tear us apart with her teeth and we’d still carry her books to class. “Hard to handle, Rainey thinks. That’s what they say when they talk about me.” The book isn’t hard to handle—it’s a fast read that consumes the reader from beginning to end—but Rainey’s experiences are. Landis takes the time to turn Rainey inside out, revealing the dark underbelly of female adolescence.