Small-town woman takes dangerous path to freedom in ‘Whereabouts’

Missy’s long legs, swaying hair and precociousness catch the eye of her mischievously older third cousin, Skyles. With a ponytail suggesting nonconformity and a penchant for strange, thoughtful little things, it seems to Missy – a mentor or partner in crime – initially a possible passport to a broader world of ideas. He has a bottle ready and lives on his pickup. Mischievous and philosophical, he is a man who, with a wink, describes himself as a “street scholar”. The kind of man who can inspire a restless girl to make reckless decisions.

Missy, a woman’s child, is at this awkward, vulnerable age when she’s just beginning to tentatively play with her power. She suggests to Skyles that they run away together. ‘Why in the world should I take you out on the streets? ‘He paused and waited for the answer. Missy thought for a moment and then crept to the edge to tell him everything. … All the reasons why staying was more unbearable than running away. Instead, she just said, “Because you couldn’t bear to leave me behind,” and when she said so, she knew that a woman would say such a thing to make a man do what she wanted. She immediately felt an adult. “

At that point, “Abode” becomes a Picaresque, and Missy is finally happily seeing a new landscape. She and Skyles drift from one seedy campground to the south, stopping at the occasionally greasy spoon along the way. (Gould’s detailed description of a fried nonsense sandwich will give you the courage.) Missy imagines herself to be a romantic nomad. “She loved being the stranger in a strange place, a walking puzzle, especially for people sitting in front of barbershops or on verandas.”

With kind permission of Koehler Books

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

This misshapen, still-growing heroine isn’t exactly keen on Skyles, but she tries to please him by using her meager means to buy him a book that she later finds in the campground trash can. They have dispassionate, desperate sex that is seen as an expected compromise for the ride. “Like most people who lived in Kingstree, Missy knew there was some kind of incest practiced in tiny towns in the south – intermarriage within city limits between the boys and girls of the hometown.” She just brings the practice to its logical, verbatim conclusion with an actual relative, no big deal.

Your time with Skyles feels drawn out; Impatience grows when the odometer collects the miles. When will she be wise and leave this loser? Where will she go when she does? It is in the nature of these stagnant arrangements that they drag on a little too long. When she finally breaks through, it is a relief, even if we fear for her safety, to ride with some AWOL Marines.

It is men who derail them and men who save them; other women don’t play a big role in Missy’s life. She ends up in a faded uniform and waits for tables at Lil ‘Pancake House on the highway. Hassan, the owner, feels sorry for her. He’s probably the most personable character in the novel, with his hilarious verbal tics and the shabby motel room on travel posters hinting at his foiled adventure dreams. Missy is a little too wild to return the favor, however. she betrays his unwavering goodness. She’s not always easy to find, but there is something about her seedy survival instincts that are to be admired. You have seen women with raw bones like those at rest stops who wiped formica and grew old before their time.

Gould, who lives in Sans Souci, South Carolina, established himself as an award-winning short story writer that drew comparisons to Flannery O’Connor. His mastery of this form is evident in this richly observed novel, the chapters of which could be broken down as discrete set pieces. They are decidedly southern, but gritty, without a hint of moonlight and magnolias. The drawls are implied without being overstated.

Missy ends up finding something that looks like redemption, or at least a fresh start.

FICTION

‘Abode’

by Scott Gould

Köehler books

243 pages, $ 18.95

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