Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review: Dope

Dope Dope by Sara Gran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to admire in this one. Gran sets out to interrogate the tough-guy aura of 1950s crime stories by presenting us with a female protagonist, Josepine Flannigan. And she isn’t simply a “private dick” in a dress. She is genuinely a woman, a woman who’s suffered as a neglected daughter, a put-upon prostitute, and a hard-luck junkie. She sees the world differently than the stereotype because her situation begins from an entirely different point: she isn’t someone suffering existential angst, someone who “coulda been a contender” but for some luck. She’s someone who has always felt the obligation to care for others, someone who has always carried the separate female burden of being the caregiver of last resort for the defenseless in her family.

Beyond that, Gran writes well. Check out this gem, “Two girls were sitting at the mirror, laughing and putting on makeup. They were in their late twenties, with figures that looked younger and eyes that looked older.” Or, later, when Josephine meditates on what would drive someone to spend her or his life doing heroin, she weighs the challenge of making a new life, a new identity, as maybe the greatest challenge to getting clean. “That’s why you start, and that’s why you stick with it, so you can finally be someone: a junkie.”

And then there is the genuinely solid narrative story here. Someone wants Josephine to track down a discarded college girl, a kid forgotten by everyone except maybe her own parents. She’s being manipulated from the start, and she plausibly believes what she hears until, gradually, she unpeels the layers. There are twists here, and they’re satisfying.

If I have a complaint, it’s that Gran doesn’t seem fully to inhabit the 1950s moment. Making this a historical novel gives it license for a thoughtful revisionism, but – outside of what’s advertised as a William S. Burroughs’s sensibility to the junkie lifestyle of the era – we don’t get much acknowledgement of how the era was different. Details likes a Rocket 88 or the new release of a Billie Holiday single don’t quite give us the grit of, say, a James Ellroy novel. There’s a slight sense of the architecture of the city as midway between its 1910s tenement past and its eventual 1980s/1990s reconstruction, but Gran doesn’t take time to explore that, and much of what happens feels as if it could be taking place in a generic moment.

[SPOILER ALERT] What elevates this for me from flat genre work, though, is its final and unanticipated twist. I was at first troubled by the sense that it’s Shelley, Josephine’s sister, who’s behind all the machinations and murders. It felt at first like a too-convenient twist, the final reveal in an author’s game with the reader.

As I think about it, though, it feels all the more appropriate, all the more a well-founded maneuver in a novel that really is trying to be about something substantial. Shelley has set everything in motion because her past has come back to haunt her; she has a chance to be a T.V. star, but that’s at risk because a sleazy old friend has naked pictures of her. And, to get them back, she acts on her long-simmering hatred of Josephine, one sister taking it all out on another.

And, as I look back, that hatred is there throughout, just thoughtfully marginalized. Part of Shelley’s hatred for Josephine comes from Josephine’s having been a junkie, from her having been someone almost programmed to let others down.

But I think a greater part of it comes from the fact that it was Josephine who took care of Shelley when no one else would. Shelley was her ‘first kid,’ the dependent for whom she sacrificed herself. Josephine might have made something of herself if not for looking after Shelley – something Detective Springer among others tells us. It’s easy to imagine the deep self-loathing that would give Shelley. Here she is, a beauty and a T.V. star, and Josephine is her portrait of Dorian Gray. Josephine has had nothing but trouble in her life, and that’s a perpetual rebuke to Shelley.

There’s something deeply hardboiled and satisfying in the way Shelley lets that darken her beyond humanity. She becomes capable of murder (and the murder of at least two innocents in Jim and Nadine) in her desire to erase her past, a past which includes Josephine most of all.

So, to wrap up this line of thought, if Josephine is one variety of a female protagonist here, a woman whose suffering we see as the price of her being cast in the role of mother-figure too young, then Shelley is the other side of that. She’s a woman resentful of having been ‘sheltered’ by others, a woman resentful of the fact that, unlike a man, she’s asked to pay the price for her indiscretions, indiscretions that were always and only about surviving. She’s been asked to endure too much in her rise, and she’s going to rewrite the history of her childhood and its deprivations.

In giving us Josephine, Gran makes a striking bid to recover a lost feminine history of her period. In giving us Shelley, she creates a force equally bent on erasing it all over again.

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