Audio ©2010 Alabama Public Radio
Grand Central Publishing, 2010
Joshilyn Jackson had a success with her first novel, Gods in Alabama, a novel of high school football players—they are the gods, the girls who want them, or at least think they do, pick-up trucks, whiskey, dating on Lipsmack Hill, etc. After two intervening novels, Between, Georgia and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Jackson has picked up the story of Rose Mae Lolley, a minor character in Gods.
All three have mysteries to be solved, and all are aimed at and about women. This one occupies an even narrower niche, battered women, a niche that includes such books as Connie Mae Fowler's Before Women Had Wings and Michael Morris' A Place Called Wiregrass
Backseat Saints opens in Amarillo, Texas. Ro Grandee is married to Thom Grandee. Not only is Thom an absolutely rotten husband and a worthless, violent human being, his father is too, and the family owns a string of gun stores, Grandee's Guns.
Jackson has done her research into battered women. There is no doubt about her accuracy. This subject is so fraught, it is like the Holocaust or lynching. Please be clear: my impatience, my objections, such as they are, concern the novel as art, not the issue of battered women.
Ro has been married, and beaten, for six years. She reports that Thom would usually hold her "head sideways, pressed into the cool plaster of the wall. I'd be pinned. . . while he ran four fast punches down one side of my back." "I could feel the bruises running in a chain down my back, left of my spine, four in a vertical row. The purple black bloom in the center of each was the size of Thom Grandee's fist…."
Ro's next door neighbor, Mrs. Fancy, knows what's up. She never addresses the problem directly but brings Ro baked goods and comfort. The first time she saw Ro's arm in a sling, "she accepted Ro's explanation, but only the first time."
At the ER a kind nurse tells Ro, laying her gentle hand on "the wrist that wasn't broken…. You don't have to live like this." She has been there two or three times a year for "bruises and cracked bones." Ro's third year of marriage had been the worst. "I'd been in [the ER] five times."
The reader learns that Rose's mom had been beaten by Dad and then, when Rose was 8, fled without Rose. Soon after, dad began beating Rose steadily, for ten years, until she fled. Rose headed west from Fruiton (read Brewton), Alabama, to Amarillo, working as a waitress in truck stops as she went, and every man she took up with beat her.
Of course this sounds like pathology and it is.
Ro Grandee, who had been Rose Mae Lolley, has a split personality, Rose Mae being feistier, pluckier, more intent on surviving. Ro Grandee is meek, submissive, sexually masochistic. Not only does she carry around a kind of schizophrenia, but Rose, a Roman Catholic, also calls up saints such as Francis, Michael, Sebastian, complete with arrows, the Virgin Mary and so on. Are these delusions? It is not made clear.
It takes, we know, a painfully long time for abused wives to leave their husbands, but art is not life. This novel, somewhat repetitively, circles around Ro's beatings for two hundred pages. Then Ro moves into action, and the novel rises in tension and excitement. She flees, pursued by Thom, and returns to her home town to find her childhood boyfriend Jim. (Readers of Gods know this can't work.) Rose then heads to Berkeley, California, where she finds her mom, who has set up a refuge for battered women.
Mom is an interesting creature, a new-age gypsy who gives Tarot readings and advises Ro, on page one, in the Amarillo airport, to kill her husband. Ro tells us, "she said that it was him or me," and Mom, in the end, is right.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on June 21, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.