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Minnesota Moxie - Evocatively tuned to 1960s pop culture, eleven simultaneously dark and hilarious stories portray one family's life in a rural town.

Diana Postlethwaite is professor of English at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. She has reviewed contemporary fiction for publications including the Washington Post Book World, Women's Review of Books, and New York Times Book Review.
Jean Harfenist
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002
213 pp., $22.00

In Francine Proses' satiric novel Blue Angel (2000), a middle-aged novelist suffering from chronic writer's block gets some career advice from his savvy Manhattan editor: "Have you considered a memoir? ... You don't need me to tell you that what's selling these days has to have the juicy gleam, the bloody smell of the truth." The recipe for a best- selling memoir? "Something directly traceable to your dysfunctional childhood. And something, of course, you've recovered from."

Like the heroine of the eleven interconnected short stories that make up A Brief History of the Flood, Jean Harfenist grew up in a large family in a small town in rural Minnesota. Just like Lucille Anderson, she left home after high school for a series of secretarial jobs. But Harfenist, who's been widely published in small literary reviews, has chosen to categorize the pieces in her first book-length collection as short stories rather than memoirs.

Does it matter whether what happens in these chronicles of childhood and adolescence in Acorn Lake, Minnesota, between 1959 and l970 is fact or fiction? Unfortunately, Blue Angel's fatuous editor may have a point: in a literary marketplace where autobiographical essays like David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day top the charts, an equally witty, mordant, and high-flying short story collection is more likely to languish midlist, respectfully reviewed but widely unread.

That would be a shame. A Brief History of the Flood is every bit as funny/sad, cynical/sentimental, and, at times, just plain off-the-wall ("Less than two hours into their twenty-second wedding anniversary party, Mom says she's decided to kill Dad one day soon. 'Dibs on his binoculars,' I say and dump more Worcestershire sauce in the Chex party mix") as Sedaris at his irreverent best.

Bonfires and Saturday-morning cartoons

The memoir that A Brief History of the Flood reminds me of even more strongly is Mary Karr's 1995 best-seller, The Liars' Club. (Karr's book, I suspect, inspired many of the crazy mom/drunken dad memoirs published in recent years.) The Liars' Club pivoted on an unforgettable scene in which Karr's manic-depressive mother builds a bonfire and torches the belongings of young Mary and her sister. "If I keep my eyes unfixed and look through my eyelashes," Karr remembers, "I discover I can turn the whole night into something I drew with my crayon. The ... dresses flying into the fire are cut out of a paper-doll book. The fire is burnt orange and sunflower yellow and fire-engine red, with bold black spikes around it."

That cartoon metaphor is perfectly attuned to baby-boomers like Karr, who grew up on Saturday-morning television. Similarly, Harfenist's heroine Lucille watches her crazy mother wink at her and tiptoe towards Dad, "moving like some sneaky cartoon character"; she wants to open her mouth like a window and scream until her hair stands out straight.

Harfenist stages a Liars' Club--style conflagration, too. In "The Gift," Lucille's manic mother decides, while her husband is away on a hunting trip, to enlist the kids in holding one giant garage sale, throwing out or selling off the entire contents of the family garage, including all her husband's hardware supplies and the family DeSoto.

"This is the biggest thing we've ever done," young Lucille thinks as she watches the purge. "Bigger than getting married, Mom says. It almost feels like spring." Lucille fears what's going to happen when her violent, alcoholic father returns, but she's also able to identify with her mother's exhilarated, destructive excess: "I've never felt so clean. I want more. I want that hall closet empty--grade school projects, overcoats, baby clothes--all flaming in the burn barrel. We'll use the box of Clue and Candyland parts for kindling."

The way we were

Fortunately for her readers, Harfenist has chosen to use her childhood memorabilia as kindling for the imagination. One of the book's greatest strengths is the way in which each story skillfully realizes its "when" and "where." The setting throughout is tuned to the pop culture and history of middle America in the l960s. Donning a "scoop-necked pink polyester shell--the good kind that hardly ever needs ironing," Lucille dreams of being a career girl. As the Anderson family (an ironic reference to those Father Knows Best Andersons of fifties tv?) watches the Vietnam body count added up on the news, Lucille's teenaged brother Randy debates ways to avoid the draft.

Harfenist also has perfect pitch for her regional setting (and you can trust me on this one; I too came of age in Minnesota during the l960s). What Minnesota teenager of the era didn't listen to the "WDGY Rock Weatherman," or watch Verne Gagne's pro wrestling on tv? Acorn Lake is near enough to the cities for Lucille to get a summer job preparing airplane meals at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport (two hundred hard-boiled egg and black olive salads; thirty-two first-class shrimp cocktail cups), or to make a teenaged shoplifting jaunt to suburban Southdale, America's first-ever enclosed mall. (I hadn't thought about that much-marveled-at, two-story birdcage in the rotunda for years!)

Acorn Lake is the kind of place where "once you reach homecoming queen, there's no place else to go but bad." In such a tiny town, Lucille muses, "you don't break up with a boy, you lose your turn." The mother of a Catholic classmate dies "so young even the Lutherans came to the wake for a beer and soft good-bye."

Still, we're a far piece from Garrison Keillor's corny, sentimentalized Lake Woebegon. The most significant setting in A Brief History of the Flood isn't its historical time or geographical locale but that physical/psychical forge which fundamentally tempers each of us: the family.

The Anderson house is a character in its own right. In the book's opening story, "Floating," eight-year-old Lucille can hear "music so loud it's like the house is bending its knees, dancing to Louis Prima." In the final paragraph of the book's last tale, nineteen-year-old Lucille puts the pedal to the metal to escape. But, she observes, "no matter how fast I go, the house is still there ... hooked to my bumper. ... over a long string of hills, the house will rise and disappear, rise and disappear, and rise again."

Each story is a stop along the highway of Lucille's growing up, but all roads lead both from and to home. With its echoes of the biblical book of Genesis, the book's title reminds us of the punishing postlapsarian deluge brought down on Adam and Eve's fallen descendants. In "Floating," we find Lucille, if not exactly in a childhood Eden, still at least buoyed up by her eager longing to believe that her mother and father know best.

Though told from the innocent point of view of a child, "Floating" sustains a complex voice. In the second tale, "Body Count," which chronicles fourteen-year-old Lucille's disturbing and definitive loss of innocence when she has sex with a high school coach, there's far less distance between the worldly-wise author and her heroine. By contrast, "Floating" must simultaneously show us Lucille's na?vete while making us aware of disturbing realities its central character isn't old enough to comprehend.

What paradise to live in a house on a lake in the summertime, wearing only your swimsuit from dawn 'til dusk! "We loosen our knees and ride it out like boat ballerinas. We're lake kids." Mom spends her days either sleeping ("What if she sleeps forever? ... But she always knows where we are, I say") or obsessed with nutty projects such as transforming the family motorboat into a wedding-cake fourth-of-July float. Dad, to be avoided during his frequent black moods, patrols the house with a perennial glass of "tomato juice" in hand.

The first thing that happens in "Floating" is ominous: wandering two- year-old Davey is pulled out of the water ("I can't stand babies, but I'm picking weeds off Davey now, shivering, just glad he's alive"). Throughout the story, Lucille teeters between an eight-year-old's self- absorption (that annoying baby brother) and a chill inkling that the undertow of parental neglect could prove dangerous. The story's conclusion is pitch perfect: "Even if you lose both your oars, you can still get to shore. ... Mostly you better not think about drowning. ... Otherwise you're a goner. Mom knows that. And she taught it to us when we were little because she knows we're all she's ever going to have."

Innocence lost

"Body Count" is the book's most disturbing story. It opens with a disarmingly goofy scene: while Dad chugs Grain-Belt beer, Lucille's brother Randy and his dim-witted buddy Turk debate ways of avoiding the draft, and Mom stakes out the mistletoe for incoming prey. "It seems as if Mom drops from the ceiling to kiss the Coach."

Later that night, Lucille finds herself kissing him, too--in his car, en route home from a baby-sitting job. Lucille's voice as she describes losing her virginity is chilling: "I see myself, a pale girl looking down on us just before I disappear." Harfenist's choice of metaphor is beautifully calibrated, too: at his moment of sexual climax, the coach's "head arches back like a runner breaking through the tape."

But is this rape? The reader may find Lucille's feelings of sexual complicity disturbing. The coach had come home to find our heroine drinking rum and engaged in heavy petting with her boyfriend ("my bra's still unhooked, giving me that loosey-goosey feeling"), and Lucille's earlier sexual excitement carries over into her encounter with the coach. Maybe, like her mother, Lucille thinks, "I just love love."

"Body Count's" stunningly powerful conclusion connects its comic opening with its tragic close. Randy and Turk, we're told, have decided to give up on their draft dodge: " 'We'll just let it happen. ... at least then if we get killed, it won't be our fault.' ... I think about it for a long time. Finally I say, 'Yes, it will.' "

Slipping into a dream

The next three stories,"Duck Season," "The Gift," and "Salad Girls," are set in l966, Lucille's fifteenth year. The first two shape themselves around the favorite sport of small-town Minnesotans, hunting. "If it moves, Dad shoots it," Lucille claims--including, once, a cageful of his children's beloved pet rabbits. Lucille escapes across the lake at night to hang out with an older boyfriend, but her teenaged bravado fails to mask the way she's targeted by her emotional vulnerability.

My favorite story is "The Gift," which exemplifies Harfenist's skill at infusing dark emotions with comic energy. It starts off with the garage sale/bonfire episode discussed above--in itself a great story--but takes a totally unexpected turn: Dad and Randy return home in the middle of the night from their hunting trip but don't go into that empty garage. Instead, they unload an astonishing truckful of death-- "mallards, pintails, coots, mergansers, four wood ducks, a pair of loons, a red fox and two chipmunks."

It's one of those familiar yet amazing moments when a family moves in perfect synchronicity into shared tradition (albeit, in this case, a gruesome one--gutting and skinning dead animals). Mother and daughters are awakened: "We slip right out of our dreams and into theirs." Harfenist's writing crackles with energy: Mom "starts squat-walking, rolling dead game into the tarp like roast turkey into a piece of lefse."

More comic than tragic

A Brief History of the Flood never again reaches the hilarious/disturbing heights of these opening stories. Lucille's father largely disappears from the book, and we miss his menacing presence. As her two older siblings leave home and our heroine broadens her horizons, the loss-of-innocence poignancy that fueled the earlier tales dissipates. Even Mom's histrionic ups and downs come to seem a bit predictable and repetitious.

The best moments in these later stories are comic rather than tragic. Lucille's wild and crazy best friend Irene is a hoot ("nothing you can say will shock her, and she thinks like Dr. Seuss"). An anniversary party that Lucille's parents throw for themselves in "Safety Off, Not a Shot Fired" turns into madcap chaos, with the guests "gathered in groups, swapping stories, glittery-eyed, like people who've seen a train wreck, each one hoping to report something no one else saw, all of them looking well fed."

Some of the most laugh-out-loud moments come in "Pixie Dust," wherein generous Mom shares her beloved Dexedrine pills (the "pixie dust" of the title) with her daughter and a speed freak is born. This is pretty hilarious stuff (move over, David Sedaris): "Three hours later I tiptoe into German class, late because I had to shampoo my hair twice, cover each strand with a dab of slippery green Dippity-Do, set it on orange juice cans, and wear the dryer cap while I Windexed every tile on the bathroom wall and scraped the rust from the base of the faucet using the tip of the metal nail file."

The three final stories in A Brief History of the Flood venture back onto more serious turf, but without the family-of-origin focus of the book's opening pieces. In "The Road Out of Acorn Lake," "Fully Bonded by the State of Minnesota," and "The History of the Flood," we follow Lucille from age eighteen to nineteen. Silly and serious mix a bit uneasily: Lucille and Irene apply the small-town work ethic to stripping labels from stolen clothes in a Minneapolis chop shop; Lucille becomes a secretary for an insurance company and discovers that "typing on speed is better than sex."

The strength of the book's earlier stories lies in Harfenist's ability to ground her heroine's youthful emotions within the larger context of the narrator's darker adult perspectives. In these later tales, often played for easy laughs, it's hard to tell what Harfenist thinks or feels (or wants the reader to think and feel) about Lucille's reckless, potentially dangerous, behavior.

But these are minor quibbles. Regardless whether Jean Harfenist dubs them memoir or fiction, these vivid chronicles of childhood and adolescence in small-town Minnesota radiate "the juicy gleam, the bloody smell of the truth."n
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Title Annotation:A Brief History of the Flood
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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