Girl Trouble by Holly Goddard Jones

“Oh take your turn

Don’t live too fast

Troubles will come

And they will pass

Go find a woman

And you’ll find love

And don’t forget son

There is someone up above” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

Kentucky is a strange state. Though geographically situated in the Midwest, it shares most of its culture with the South. It is a state known for legendary basketball coaches, bourbon, horse racing and its state colleges, which are revered like citadels. It is a place of paradox, of displacement, of a people with an identity uniquely their own. As writer Megan Daum has said, “It’s as if the wind, which barrels through here like a wild animal, knocks the irony out of everything.”

I know Kentucky pretty well after making dozens of trips from Atlanta to Chicago, shuttling through Chattanooga, Nashville, Elizabethtown, Bowling Green, Louisville and Indianapolis. I’ve passed way too many Cracker Barrels, BBQ spots (most of them advertised with depictions of cartoon pigs) and discount firework stores. I know the nondescript highway exits for tourist traps like Kennesaw Mountain, Cave City and Opryland well.

I say all this because reading Holly Goddard Jones’ debut collection of short stories, Girl Trouble, was like a homecoming for me. What makes Jones’ writing so good is that her stories aren’t forced and the plotlines are imaginable. Her writing is uniquely American and that can only be said with the highest praise, for she follows a trajectory of great writing in realism and regionalism, where the physical setting of fiction is as important as the actual characters.

If Girl Troublehad come with a CD, I know what would be on it – Neko Case, The Drive-By Truckers, Gillian Welch, Kings of Leon, The Band and Mason Jennings. Like these artists, Jones makes America come alive.

The title of the book comes from the story “Allegory of the Cave”. In it, a young boy, nearly blind with childhood cataracts, is trapped between the life he wants to live and the life he has been given, between his mother’s and father’s love. Ultimately, he is given a choice, one whose consequences will define him for the rest of his life.

From that perspective, all of Jones’ stores are about choices and all of them involve “girls”; but most of the time, the “trouble” is not cause by the girls in question as much as they are blamed for doing something that befalls the men in their lives. When a housewife is raped by a teenage boy, it is her fault for letting him in. When a barely pubescent girl, tipsy from her first wine cooler, tries to console an older man (who was trying to get her drunk) and touches his arm, she is chastised for coming on to him.

After a small town police chief makes a rape case “go away,” he rationalizes it this way: “These girls. I don’t know. They’re different nowadays. Time was, a girl knew what she should and shouldn’t do … A good girl just don’t do that. Good girls know better. Maybe it was mutual and maybe it wasn’t.”

Reading Girl Troublewas a bit like watching Precious (2009): much of the text/dialogue involved what was not said, but implied. Jones’ gift is dropping little teasers, which barely cause a ripple on the surface, but tug at a portion of your heart that something is amiss. In that vein, the author casually inserts references throughout the volume for domestic violence, miscarriages and premonitions about death and divorce that irritate the reader, but really sting when they unfold themselves.

It’s no surprise that the best stories in this collection are the ones narrated by women, who have been broken by the men in their lives, and are saddled with the responsibility of putting it all back together. In “Parts”, Dana watches her daughter Felicia die as the result of a horrifying crime, but then is truly left alone when one of Felicia’s killers gets no jail time and then Dana’s husband divorces her, remarries and has another child. For her, recovery is neither simple nor painless, and she is haunted by memories of her daughter and the family she once had. In many ways, Dana reminded me a lot of Rosa in Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl as the latter struggled for years to deal with the death of her baby Magda while mother and daughter were in a concentration camp.

Jones brings forth another tale of divorced woman struggles in “Retrospective”. Here too a mother is left alone after her children have moved on with their lives and her ex-husband has seemingly found happiness again with another woman. While Libby sorts through old photos, she thinks after seeing her wedding picture that it was “the last perfect day of her life” in a self-deprecating, demoralizing way reminiscent of Allison Janney’s turn as a military wife in Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999). Libby describes her dizzying descent into solitude as “The Big Lonely”:

Hours of television and sudden daydreams about men, strangers, whom she saw on the street… eating microwave dinners or takeout from China Chef even though she loved to cook… getting sympathetic looks at the gynecologist’s office where she worked as a receptionist… looking in the mirror and not even registering what was there because she’d spent twenty years of her life depending on Stephen’s judgment.

The only disappointing thing about Girl Troubleis that the quality of individual stories is inconsistent. Of the eight stories, three are exceptional (“Parts”, “Good Girl” and “Retrospective”); three are good (“Allegory of a Cave”, “An Upright Man” and “Proof of God”); one is okay (“Life Expectancy”); and one downright puzzling (“Theory of Realty”).

Time and time again, I found myself reading Jones’ stories and thinking about the cast of characters in my own life. A gentle giant who became a maelstrom of rage when drunk, a father covering for his son’s inadequacies, a star athlete having sex with her high school coach – these are all characters in Girl Trouble, but they are all people I have known. Though Girl Troublewill really be appreciated by people in the Midwest, its appeal – and Jones’ gift – is making the microcosm of Kentucky the stage for universal ideals and obstacles that will resonate for all.

RATING 7 / 10