March 04, 2010
I read Safe in Heaven Dead and I waited. That was a hell of a debut, there was a whiff of The Corrections to that book, but in a more focused world, plus the main character dies on the first page, so, I guess it’s not all Franzen. Then, as I’m doing my monthly Ligon check I come across him on Facebook, which, well, puts Drift and Swerve squarely on my desk. It’s funny to wait so long to read a writer and then realize that he’s continued to write the same searing and effective prose that you remembered. Ligon and I talked about Providence, where the first story in Drift and Swerve takes place. I went to college there and grew up in Rhode Island, and he wanted me to point out what he got wrong about the city. He didn’t miss anything, or screw any streets up, which is good, meaning he knows where he’s writing about. What I like about the story is that it reminds me so much of the people that didn’t go to RISD or Brown, and hung around Providence with the kids who did. They were there physically, but when we students went to class they went to work at a job-job. These people were sometimes more interesting than the kids who went to college, and Ligon takes us on trip around town with a down on her luck stoner, who drifted her way to Providence.
Sometimes Providence collects people like Nikki, who got there by accident. Nikki doesn’t remind me of one person, she reminds me of six or seven, girls who showed up at parties that were all RISD kids and she was the only one there who didn’t have to go to class, but somehow found something in common with everyone. I thought of Nikki as more than the stoner thief that she’s made up to be by Ligon, the girl who wants something but doesn’t know how to ask, or find it, if she did know what it was. She’s working at a restaurant owned by some lesbians, and Ligon makes it all sound oddly uncomfortable, without saying it out loud. There’s this great scene where Nikki gets this painting from a painter who may or may not be dropping out of RISD, and she doesn’t really like the gift. It sounds good to me, but Nikki doesn’t know if it’s good or not, because she’s Nikki, a girl who works at a restaurant. It’s easy to show a character being uneducated, or have them say it, but it’s difficult to neither say it or show it, and just have it be there, that’s a writer who knows how to write characters. -JR