It has become something of a tradition at the CultureZohn to stay in bed on New Year's Eve with a hunky luminary in the form of--his book. Well, let's just say in the past it has been with Keith Richards, Richard Burton and Warren Beatty and I promise you watching the Ball Drop on Times Square in frigid weather cannot in any way compare.
But this year, I had no celebrity I wanted to spent the night in bed with. I was left to choose between essays by women who were heartbroken or non fiction to do with Florida or Sicily, none of which seemed very appealing.
The one novel I did have was My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent, a book which had received critical raves, so I snuggled in under the duvet (yes, even in LA where the weather this holiday season has been sublime everyone forgets we are a desert and it drops at least 20 degrees at night and gets cold) and began the book, which truth be told, I had tried to begin at least three earlier times but with the distractions of the holidays had proved heretofore challenging.
We know we are in the Wild West right away when Tallent's first chapter opens on Turtle, a 14 year old girl cleaning and caring for her gun as if it were her pet turtle while she practices her spelling words under her father Martin's watchful, sardonic, impatient eye. In school she is distracted and slow and when she is called in for an after school conference with him she is passive and hostile, on high alert for her father's anger, a lone survivalist who keeps them off the grid in Mendocino. She keeps her own counsel while the corpulent principal and benevolent teacher try to pierce Martin's angry screed on environmental apocalypse which he feels will render all of Turtle's (nee Julia Alveston) spelling errors and everything else they are teaching her in school pretty much moot. Turtle's plentiful self loathing (which she has clearly picked up from her 'daddy') during the meeting gives us the second set of clues that this is no ordinary father daughter relationship. On the way home she is petrified of the consequences and mentally dodges and feints with his impending rage. Tallent mirrors his lady bird (and there is something of the Saoirse Ronan character in her) with stealth and cunning for suddenly by the end of chapter one we are in the darkest territory imaginable and I was literally holding my breath.
It's hard to write about the book without giving away things so I will say merely the following. Turtle reminded me alternately of Harper Lee's Scout, Truffaut's Wild Child, and Lord of the Flies. She eats raw eggs. She's feral. After guns--and there are a lot of guns-- there are knives. She's a smart, damaged teenager caught in a twisted bramble--and there are plentiful brambles and fields and hikes and beaches redolent of Tallent's deep knowledge of the area--of pain and suffering which with like all abused children (or wives for that matter) is inflected with deep love. "I am a girl things go badly for," she says at the outset and that is no understatement. It's the first time I felt I could describe a relationship as S and M with a child.
Turtle does escape every once in a while and we get to breathe along with her. She is befriended by Jacob and Brett, two precociously intelligent and well read boys a year older than she is (shades of the young Tallent?) when they get lost in the woods and they become two of the outside forces she knows she could rely on were she to spill the beans. Problem is: she can't get herself to do it. Like so many victims, she loves her abuser madly.
Martin is good looking and strong (Sam Shepard in his younger days would have been perfect casting) and he's smart too, but he's totally unhinged and there's not a few moments when I thought of all the crazies who have been shooting people in Las Vegas et al. Tallent gives him as much intelligence and savvy and self reliant skill set as he can muster but nothing really ends up mattering except his sick fixation on his daughter, whom, as he makes her swear, 'belongs only to him'.
Her grandfather's death (he, another tiny drunken outpost of semi sanity) triggers a series of events which grow more twisted and gut wrenching, and which, I had to often skip over. It was like a movie where I cover my eyes when it grows too violent only with a book you can't do that. It's New Year's Eve I kept reminding myself, but I couldn't put the book down. Eventually Turtle even joins her father in abusing another young girl Cayenne, whom he brings into the house. Come on Tallent, I wanted to say, isn't it already enough? But no, apparently it isn't. He needs to show us precisely how corrupting being a victim is. Martin himself was his father's victim--and so it goes.
I read that Tallent had been an outdoor guide himself, and it states clearly on the book jacket that he grew up with two moms which made me wonder if having a regular dad around might not have given him a shot at undemonizing Martin from time to time. Credulity is often challenged. Though Turtle is nervous the authorities are going to show up when she cuts school repeatedly or when people see her bedraggled, high strung state, they never do, so the hothouse, well, charnel house atmosphere is rarely pierced.
Tallent writes beautifully, the gorgeous prose still fragile ballast for the horrible things he is describing. All in all it was a fraught way to welcome the New Year and I spent New Year's Day lolling about in my nightgown making a vat of chicken soup.