By Mesha Maren, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 309 pages. $26.95
Sugar Run explores place, connection and redemption in the face of the justice system and the struggle to avoid destructive choices. The book begins with the protagonist Jodi’s release from prison after having served 18 years — more than half her life — for a murder she later laconically thinks “had all the thrilling elements the newspapers craved: kidnapping, violence, sex.” The literary lineages here are hard-boiled fiction and film noir, but on every page of her debut novel, Mesha Maren creates bold new takes on those venerable genres, a much needed refresh of worn tropes and cliches.
The ravaged but still-beautiful mountains of West Virginia’s coal country were once Jodi’s home, and she yearns to go back. She dreams of finding refuge on her dead grandmother’s land and hopes to discover if making a new life is even possible. Except first she heads to southern Georgia to fulfill an implied teenage pact, made before prison, to save the brother of her magnetically criminal, now dead ex-girlfriend, Paula, from his horribly abusive father.
That long Greyhound ride spools out wonderfully and descriptively as Jodi experiences the shocks of freedom and the changes America has undertaken during the years she lived with no view of the outside world except straight up from the prison yard to blank sky. On the bus she watches the flow of landscape as the mountains of north Georgia become “nothing but bruise-blue humps beyond the yellow fields.” She notes passing place names that hark back to the Cherokee, and marvels at the unimaginable eruption of modern Atlanta, its skyscrapers like “rocket ships of glass and chrome” and its inhabitants all “clutching newspapers, cardboard cups of coffee and cellphones.” Men keep “popping up right in that moment of pleasant silence,” and she comes to reflect on prison as a place where she was “preserved, safe from her own self.”
A few days later, Jodi has completed her quest and fulfilled her decades-old promise to Paula. Except the abused boy, Ricky, is now a troubled and troubling adult, rescued but not always grateful to his savior. Along the way Jodi has also found a new locus of desire, Miranda — a beautiful, impulsive young woman with an addictive personality and three young children from her broken marriage to a faded country music star. Jodi and Miranda’s complex relationship, with its tough and delicate moments of attraction and then romance, shapes one of the book’s strongest movements.
Before the six of them — damaged and desperate — shoehorn into Miranda’s Chevette and head up to West Virginia in time for Jodi’s first appointment with her parole officer, Jodi tells Ricky, “Whatever you want for a new life, bring it here with you in the morning.” But the new life they’re all fleeing towards is harsh, and its margins so tight that a welfare benefits card counts as a major asset.
Throughout the narrative, which jumps back and forth in time between the late 1980s and 2007, the events leading to Jodi’s conviction spin in her memory, becoming clearer bit by bit. Her teenage affair with Paula once took Jodi into a dark, frightening and exciting underworld of gambling, guns and passion. At one point, remembering a flight in a small plane over the ocean with Paula, Jodi searches in vain for the right words to describe the colour of the water, as elusive as her swirling emotions — words sufficient to “catch the heart-wild magic of it.”
Now, back in West Virginia with her collection of fugitives, Jodi holds to her prison vision of living simply on the land, an old and deeply American dream that is hard to let go. She finds that her grandmother’s farm has been sold, but that doesn’t deter her from moving her group into the cabin anyway for a brief cigarette-and-whiskey outlaw idyll. Instead of peace and hope and love, however, they find they’re under constant threat in an Appalachian community gutted by meth and opioids, by fracking creeping so close that a neighbor can set his tap water on fire, and, as always, by limitations on upward mobility for the underprivileged that have been baked into American culture from its beginning.
Though the powerful pulls of land and home and sense of place persist, one of the primary questions Sugar Run asks is what these concepts even mean now in this country. Maren is masterly at describing America’s modern wastelands, the blasted towns not yet and maybe never-to-be the beneficiaries of rehabilitation and reoccupation. The book’s landscape is dotted with roadside casino trailers, abandoned mining operations, country brothels set up like prisons with chain-link fences and armed guards to control both the customers and the immigrant prostitutes. Jodi’s own brother uses her in an opioid transaction and then threatens her by suggesting that locals might consider Miranda’s children better off with a “more Christian” family. How do you possibly find or make a home under such conditions?
In searching for answers to those questions, resolutions to those conflicts, the book’s conclusion perhaps misses an opportunity when it veers towards action and violence and away from one of its greatest strengths — its clear focus on character and place.
But that doesn’t diminish the cumulative effect of the graceful prose, which reaches back in the best way to its noir predecessors. You can almost see Maren — like Raymond Chandler — cutting each typed page into three strips and requiring each strip to contain something delightful (startling simile, clever dialogue, brilliant description) offered to the reader as recompense for a world that presses up against you all raw and aggressive and dangerous. A language that fully owns its power to capture just that “heart-wild magic.”