Girl Beside Him by Cris Mazza

by Valerie MacEwan


Coyotes Are Largely Nocturnal

I’m discussing postfeminist literature with my mother. We’re on the patio. Mother is in the Hatteras swing and I’m in a lawn chair. She’s only five feet tall now. She started diminishing when she hit seventy and now, fourteen years later, her feet don’t touch the ground when she leans back in the swing. I kick the front of the swing every few minutes to keep it swaying.

“See, Mom,” I tell her, “according to Cris Mazza, it has to do with women being no longer afraid to honestly assess and define themselves without having to live up to standards imposed by either a persistent patriarchal world or the insistence that we achieve self-empowerment.”

cover art

Girl Beside Him

Cris Mazza

(Fiction Collective Two, Florida State University)

“What?” she replies.

“You know, it’s like you don’t have to be ashamed that Daddy balanced the checkbook and paid the bills. Women today can be anything. They can control the finances or let their life partner be the breadwinner, they can stay home and raise children, or hit the glass ceiling. Women don’t have to burn bras, this postfeminist movement is the ‘so what now?’ of the feminist movement of the ‘70s.”

“What are you talking about?”

“About 21st century women. Women are independent, confident writers now, Mom. But they still have human weaknesses and don’t have to be self-empowered to be able to say something. Mazza says women can love until they hurt someone, turn their own hurt into love, refuse to love, or even ignore the notion of love completely. She defines postfeminist writing as literature that says we don’t have to be superhuman anymore. Just human.”

I tell her she’s out of touch with modern women.

“Maybe I am,” she admits and asks, “What’s the plot of the book you just finished, Girl Beside Him? Isn’t it by Cris Mazza? The book you left on the dining room table…?”

“It’s about this helicopter-flying, coyote-shooting, cougar-counting, masturbating guy who has flashbacks of his adolescent sexual fantasies he had as he masturbated in the bathroom to the sounds of his mother raping his sister. His mother molested his sister because the mother was a lesbian and thought an unpleasant sexual experience with a woman would prevent the disease of lesbianism from spreading to her daughter. Apparently this excited the Masturbating Guy all through his teenage years until it climaxed into a free-for-all shooting, leaving his mother with a bullet in her leg and his sister with her face blown off. He didn’t shoot them in any attempt to free his sister from sexual bondage. Apparently the gun went off when he did. But it takes the whole book for him to come to grips with this fact and he thinks he will become a serial killer if he has sex so he’s been celibate for twenty years. He doesn’t even masturbate, apparently, but he thinks a lot about how it felt to masturbate.”

“Oh. How does she know how it feels?”

“Who, Mazza? I don’t know… Anyway, he gets this job flying a helicopter so he can count these relocated cougars in Wyoming. But he needs an assistant and isn’t paid enough for the extra salary, but he hires one anyway and teaches her to fly the helicopter while he holds a rifle in one hand as he shoots coyotes out of the open cockpit, then he lands the chopper on the Wyoming desert floor and cuts off the coyotes’ tails, and sells them to the local taxidermist who is in charge of dispersing whatever is in the weekly bounty hunter collection plate for coyote reduction, which is sponsored by the local ranchers.”

“Are the coyotes masturbating?” she asks.

“No. But he gets this dog from a rancher that’s supposed to track cougars, some kind of ridgeback dog. Mazza always refers to the dog as the bitch, doesn’t let us know the name until almost the end of the book.”

“Does the bitch masturbate?”

“No, but the neutered male ridgeback dog humps the leg of the assistant.”


“As the story progresses, the rancher wants the Masturbating Guy to catch a cougar and put it in a stable with a horse so the cougar will maul the horse and the rancher can collect insurance money. The cougar’s mauled before and the rancher didn’t have insurance, so he’s making up for lost time. The rancher threatens to sabotage the helicopter if Masturbating Guy doesn’t deliver the cougar. But in the end, Masturbating Guy sets the cougar free by removing its tracking collar and that way the cougar can go to the ranch and kill whatever it wants without being tracked… the idea being that once the cougar tastes horseflesh, it will continue to kill it and maybe Mazza wants the cougar to be a metaphor for Masturbating Guy and how he really is a serial killer after all.”

“Does the horse masturbate with the cougar?”

“No, but Mazza includes the age-old tale about Catherine the Great getting killed when she tries to have sex with a horse.”

“That’s not a true story. Made up out of the whole cloth. But I do remember reading about her getting stuck in a toilet seat one time.”

Mother’s read all twelve volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s History of Civilization.

“The rancher takes the Masturbating Guy to a semi-tractor trailer that has been rigged up as a whorehouse, except it doesn’t have any running water but it does have a refrigerator and a window air conditioning unit, and tries to get Masturbating Guy laid because he thinks the guy just needs a good lay to get his head on straight. But the Masturbating Guy doesn’t get laid.”

“So does the prostitute masturbate? How about the rancher, does he masturbate?”

“I don’t think so. You’re making this very difficult, you know. How am I supposed to tell you about this book when you keep asking me about who is masturbating?”

“Well,” Mother tells me, “It seems to me that if Wyoming is the least-populated state in the union, maybe it’s because all those people spend so much time masturbating.”

She has a wicked gleam in her eye and her laughter follows me into the house as I head to the kitchen for another glass of wine.

I’ve made a conscious decision not to discuss postfeminism again with Mother. She just doesn’t get it. Could have something to do with her acquiring an engineering degree in 1938. She was post before there was pre.

Now, with this mother-daughter dialogue streaming through my brain, I have to write a review of Girl Beside Him. The novel takes place in Wyoming. It is the story of a man, Brian, who has contracted to take over the research of an injured environmentalist. The task involves counting relocated cougars from a helicopter. The cougars are equipped with radio transmitters.The reader learns, over time, about cougars attacking humans in California. Mazza tries to make a statement regarding the relocation of animals, but I couldn’t figure out if she was fer it or agin it. Probably she subscribes to the theory that once a wild animal develops a penchant for a certain type of flesh, it will seek out same, regardless of geography.

In Girl Beside Him, Mazza utilizes font styles to let readers know when she’s left the omniscient narrator behind and entered a character’s head. Leya, the Masturbating Guy’s assistant, writes letters to her friend back home. Leya’s typewriter font missives contain giggly comments concerning Brian’s — Masturbating Guy — physical appearance, his apparent angst, and her own anguish. Brian’s psyche communicates via italics, sometimes the diatribes are his thoughts, other times it is a dialogue with his sexually abused sister. He also faxes progress reports to the man who is in charge of the cougars. The other characters remain outside of themselves; only Brian and Leya let us enter their minds.

Being a true woman of the 21st century, Leya figures out all about Brian and his psychological hang-ups, his phobias, guilt, feelings of inadequacy… all of it… because of his half-smiling comment, “So, okay, I had a sister. She’s been dead well over twenty years. She killed herself.”

She understands. Feels his pain. Writes to her friend:

And then later he told me he had a sister who committed suicide… I mean, I can’t explain it psychologically, but it’s probably like he never has a clear take on what’s going on around him because he’s always looking through a distorting lens caused by this unspeakable thing he’s never dealt with. I don’t know anything about it except she apparently shot herself.

Brian has a dialogue with his inner self as he watches Leya hike up her shirt to tie it above her midriff:

...Would you drive off the road again, watching her? Then not even discern that the truck is tilting crazily in a gully off the shoulder or leaning up against a long forgotten sign post. Maybe you can’t help it because the few freckles on Leya’s lower back look remarkably like the tiny spatters of blood on your sister’s exposed body, her nightgown around her neck, as though half taken off before the bullet smashed its way into the end of her life. Enough material flowing down to cover her breasts. Her little-girl flowers underwear clean, taken from the drawer at bedtime as instructed… Her legs bent, her body twisted like a discarded mannequin, with those few wayward spatters of blood.

In a few paragraphs, he realizes he shot his sister and not his mother, despite the fact he was aiming for his mother:

...But they must’ve bought your mother’s hysterically demonstrative claims: PSYCHO BITCH, SCHIZOPHRENIC DYKE, WANTED TO KILL ME! Four, five, six days in a row you stared in disbelief at the stupidly benign face on the other side of the desk, not asking but telling you what had transpired, rebuilding a scenario you cou8ld only shake your head at in mute astonishment, a hit man’s dream-come-true to be grilled not for a confession but to share FEELLINGS about an UNFORTUNATE UNHAPPY TRAGEDY.

That’s how Brian thinks. He spends quite a bit of time pondering the drawbacks of masturbating while you hold a gun and a penis at the same time — a family member could get killed. And when he’s not thinking about his sister’s death, he’s flying all over Wyoming, counting cougars, killing coyotes, insulting Leya, and trying to be a pal to the local yokels.

Girl Beside Him has its virtues. It can be read in less than three hours. The dialogue is fast-paced, the narrative engages the reader, and Mazza rarely dwells on minute details. She also gives the reader a chance to feel superior to her characters by creating a group that is as emotionally evolved as a concrete chicken.

This is not a book I can feed to my family. I can’t even leave it in the living room because my neighbor could drop by with her nine-year-old daughter, who reads everything I leave on the coffee table. Nine-year-old girls are not ready for the self-empowerment, the total freedom, of postfeminism. I’m not even sure I’m ready.

Note from author Criz Mazza

On November 25, 2001, I received the following email from Criz Mazza, concerning her book Girl Beside Him, and its review featured on PopMatters in the early Spring of 2001.

I liked your unusual format for the review of Girl Beside Him. Perhaps because I do show all my books to my mom (she’s 76 now) but we don’t discuss them! I was perplexed at your obsession with masturbation, since the man only masturbates once in the present story, although many of his memories are about teenage masturbation. That’s OK, too, because it fit your motif and was kind of funny. Besides, a female masturbating character is considered sexual, sensual, but a male masturbator is what ... an odd loner? A social failure? Certainly not sexy. So this was an interesting angle on my book that you’ve given me.

What I had wanted to talk to you about (because I was worried as to how you became confused) was your understanding of the basic plot of the book: your conclusion that Brian shot his sister while he was masturbating. I asked the managing editor and several other people if that part of the plot was difficult to understand, and they said, no, it was clear to them that Brian’s sister shot herself, then Brian came into the room, picked up the gun, tried to shoot his mother and missed…

The pieces of this story are throughout the book: that Diane had the gun, shot herself the same moment masturbating-teenaged-Brian climaxed in the bathroom. And then he did run into the room, pick up the gun and try to shoot his mother. I realize I could’ve clarified the exactly-what-happened part of this book even more. I didn’t mean to be purposely cryptic—as though testing to see who would “get it” and who wouldn’t. But I was trying to not have this self-conscious narrative explain to itself what it already knows, so I wanted to only refer to the exactly-what-happened in the way someone who already knows what-happened would refer to it—in pieces, in references, in half statements, etc.

But here’s rest of the story: a reporter/reviewer for a newspaper was assigned to interview me and review the book. He cheated, didn’t read the book and used the cliff’s notes: in this case he relied on your review instead of reading the book. He told me this before I saw the article, but I suggested that he should read the whole book before he made a judgement,and I thought he would. But his review carried the exact same errors-of-fact that appeared in your review (practically quoted). I was mortified. While your review was cute and quirky, and covered the book so thoroughly that the error about the plot was not prominent, HIS article took that mistaken summary of the plot and criticized it! Oh well, I survived. The book survived. I appreciate your review none-the-less, because it engaged interest, rather than dismissed the possibility that people could actually be interested.—CM

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