Swimming on Hwy N
(Moon City Press, 2016)
For a story beset with some of the ugliest traumas of fractured contemporary America, Mary Troy’s busy new novel careens along with remarkable lightheartedness. Child abuse, for one, casts a long shadow over Swimming on Hwy N. Madeline Dames, now sixty, finds herself drawn back into ugly family dynamics she fled before she reached her teens. Yet her reconnection with mother and sister, bitter and addled though they are, entails some danger certainly—but perhaps more comedy. There’s gallows humor even in the new name the sister has taken: Misery.
Another plotline, at first secondary but soon central, tracks an Army deserter sickened by his tours in Iraq. He’s no relation to Madeline, yet first she hides him in her Ozarks home and then she joins the ragtag crew trying to smuggle him to Canada; she sticks with it even after the boy briefly blows his cover and suffers a disabling attack. The tension, not to say dread, keeps mounting throughout the attempt to flee—yet several episodes seem more fitting for a frat-house road trip. Among the Resistance, the primary vehicle is a VW bus. The double-slugbug isn’t big enough, either—not with Madeline’s sister and mother hitching a ride and various romantic possibilities in the air. Also the crew doesn’t run so much as meander, poking west and north on the cheap. They may cross state lines, but the setting is always some strip mall just off the highway, in “towns [...] the opposite of rich,” across the U.S. outback. It’s as if we’re touring Trump country in a clown car.
So strange an interpolation of drama and farce requires special sensitivity. Troy has been at this a while. She has an earlier novel and three books of stories, and she understands that the best laughs contain a pang of recognition. A fine early example comes between Madeline and Randy, a nice-enough suitor whose sniffing around kicks off the novel’s action. Madeline, though “she’d never learned the art of flirtation,” manages not to scare Randy off even while letting him know of her bizarre luck with men. Each of her three marriages have put more distance between her and a mother who wielded “knives, ball bats, plastic belts, screwdrivers, cookware,” yet each of the husbands passed on unexpectedly. The last wasn’t long ago, and it spurred Madeline’s retreat to these Missouri woods. Still, the woman’s not wired for permanent withdrawal. She warms up to her gentleman caller even while he shares his involvement with the deserter. It’s Randy who brought the kid into her home, false papers and all, and it’s he who asks if she’ll pitch in with the escape. Still, before they start packing his “hippie-mobile”:
How do two sixty-year-olds make love? That was the set-up to Madeline’s joke to herself, and the answer, the punchline, was fast. They didn’t need time for thought, seduction, a built-up yearning… They just did it… They didn’t have to consider their futures too carefully for they had more past than future by then.
There was one moment of hesitation. “I don’t think we can do this,” Randy said when they were already naked.
“Of course we can,” Madeline said. “I have K-Y lubrication.”
He laughed. “Think I meant should, not can.”
The passage lacks the menace of some encounters. Neither Madeline’s sister nor mother burst in, though God knows they’re unstable enough, and both by then have weaseled their way into the household. Also the tryst suffers no interruptions from gun-toting right-wing “heroes,” determined to catch the “terrorist sympathizers.” These threats and more lurk throughout the novel, but Troy develops them all with the same rueful sympathy as she has for Randy and Madeline.
She works, that is, in roving third-person, tuning in for instance the voices in Misery’s head. Naturally, the sister’s bipolar dysfunction, like the sexual confusion she reveals in time, owes a lot to how her mother slapped her around—yet Swimming makes room for the older woman’s sorrows as well. The mother is Native American, from Oklahoma, and her “hidden […] hatred,” while making her way among whites has allowed the ill will to fester; now she can feel her mortality, and so struggles inchoately, cantankerously, for more genuine succor. These two unhappy old women, their layers of ambiguity peeled away at such a skillful pace, in fact constitute no less than a triumph of the imagination. Anyone who cares about the continuing vitality of the social novel, its ability to speak for the full pluribus of the American unum, ought to jump up on the bar and cheer.
If anything, Troy’s profound identification with her characters interferes somewhat with the drama. I applaud how carefully she combs through the tangled impulses of her novel’s bad guys (one of them another woman), the people looking to catch the deserter. Their leader, more or less, is a man about the same age as the one gone AWOL, and Troy proves undaunted by his gender and youth, constructing a rollercoaster ride out of the kid’s shifting emotions. Towards the end, however, she shuttles too often from slow-footed runaways to half-hearted pursuers and back—often simply swapping one overcrowded vehicle for another. When you allow everyone in the room an epiphany, some fall flat (“Surprises were sometimes delights”), and the overcrowding also diffuses the impact of the climax.
Then again, the final eruptions resound with appropriate booms, and there’s rightness as well about both the ones who get away and those who wind up on the floor. Older wounds aren’t patched up too easily, either. All in all, the successes of Swimming on Hwy N far outweigh the problems, and raise one last question: how does something so good appear somewhere so obscure? How does a novel so alive with American complexity wind up on a small press out of Springfield, Missouri? The question’s been raised before, of course, by works such as A Confederacy of Dunces. It was raised in Ecclesiastes, which warns that the race is not always to the swift. Still.