NOVEMBER 25, 2014
DARCEY STEINKE’S LATEST NOVEL, Sister Golden Hair, begins in the summer of 1972, when Jesse, the 12-year-old daughter of a defrocked Methodist minister, moves with her family from Philadelphia to the fallen world that is Bent Tree, a low-rentish development of duplexes in Roanoke, Virginia. Her father was dismissed, she tells us, because the church “didn’t like it when he encouraged the youth choir to sing ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ accompanied by guitars […] and they really didn’t like it when he started a Gestalt workshop in the church basement and started preaching against Vietnam.” Her mother believes in propriety more than she might believe in God, and has been driven to live perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown because of her husband’s now-threadbare idealism. From the metaphorical back seat of pre-adolesence, Jesse can see that God may not be all-powerful, and her father is just as lost as the people he ostensibly shepherds. “We were, he had told me with great enthusiasm, in a period of devolution, unlearning what we knew,” Jesse says. “It seemed crazy to me that my dad was trying to get to a place without maps, or directions. He was tired, confused, despairing. And what if God actually was dead like a lot of people said? Then, rather than finding Him, my Dad was going to have to invent Him all by himself.”
Those familiar with Steinke’s work will be familiar with this narrative. Sister Golden Hair is a variation of the tale she told in the novels Jesus Saves and Suicide Blonde, and in her memoir Easter Everywhere: that of a blond-haired mainline Protestant minister’s daughter who cannot believe as her father believes and yet also cannot completely give herself over to the clichés around her, whether they’re embraced by downtown posers or residents of the straight world. This story, Steinke’s own, seems to be one she has a compulsion to repeat, so much so that this novel’s narrator even shares a name — Jesse — with the narrator of Suicide Blonde. But Sister Golden Hair is an almost-hopeful reworking of this experience.
The novel is built around Jesse’s interaction with the collection of half-families that populate Bent Tree. There’s no real plot save for Jesse’s progression deeper into adolescence; the book is largely a stream of her impressions and observations. As her father’s faith peters out, and she begins to realize that God is at best silent and elusive and probably non-existent, she watches the breakdown of strenuously glamorous and desperate single mothers, becomes captivated by the malice and delusion of charismatic teenagers, and swims among a bunch of kids left stranded by checked-out parents.
Whereas previously Steinke might have chronicled a harrowing descent into nihilism for these kids, here she is content to be at play in their relative innocence. She seems interested in exploring that moment in adolescence just before you fall in lockstep with your peers and sacrifice yourself to the hive mind — that state of being receptive to, not dismissive of, everything that comes across your scanner. At the same time she’s seems intent on capturing a (relatively!) innocent moment in American culture just after the exhilarating tumult of the 1960s and just before the full-on darkness of the 1970s — that moment just before the suburbs were swallowed whole by development and still retained pockets of woodsy creepiness that could give rise, as they do in the novel, to myths that Jesse and the kids of Bent Tree pass around like tabs of acid. Before the Internet sucked us all inside and became the repository for all our fantasies.
Steinke’s epigraph — “I’ll seek out the things that must have been magic to your little girl mind” — is a lyric taken from a song by Jonathan Richman, himself no stranger to the romance of the suburbs, and in this novel Steinke takes a great deal of pleasure in reclaiming the junk of Jesse’s 1970s childhood and recasting it as spiritually significant. If one is a woman of a certain age, and/or in the mood for a little nostalgic time travel, the objets name-checked in the book may smother you, pleasantly, in a crocheted poncho of a time warp: Tiger Beat, View-Masters, David Cassidy, Dark Shadows, Disney storybook records, Sun-In, sepia-toned mirrors, snap-front housedresses, Holly Hobbie lunchboxes, transistor radios, Elton John, Patty Hearst, Tot-Finder stickers, Tang, terrycloth tank tops, The Happy Hooker paperbacks, General Hospital. It brings to mind Lynda Barry’s ability to turn the radio pop of the 1960s into dearly held talismans.
This book is rare — for Steinke, and for fiction in general — in its willingness to hang out, a little aimlessly, in the sub rosa hours of kids goofing around, when they’re left alone after school, on weekends, for whole summers to aggregate like algae and infect each other with enthusiasm, self-loathing, or fright, without any horrific harm befalling. In that way, the novel’s comedy is more reminiscent of graphic novels (in addition to Barry, Ghost World comes to mind) and films (see Napoleon Dynamite) — serious literature currently being no country for untraumatized girls. There’s a moment early on in the book where Jesse, bored to death, goes outside to fry eggs, unsuccessfully, on a hot sidewalk. A neighbor kid soon opens a window and yells to her: “You got to do it on a car hood.” Flannery O’Connor — and Charles Schultz — might approve.
The other form of magic Steinke conjures here is the kind that transpires when girls are left alone to think and do whatever they wish without being reminded they exist only to be consumed by boys, and Jesse wishes for that androgynous state a little like she might be wishing for an invisibility cloak: a superpower that would allow her to transcend the roles queued up for her and render it unnecessary for her to be as beautiful and stupid as the popular girls or as violent and dumb as the socially dominant boys. “Each new hair meant I was moving closer to the Danger Zone,” Jesse says. “Once my body flooded with hormones, I’d become vulnerable to the whims of men. Men, it wasn’t hard to see, ran everything, and once a girl got breasts and all that went with that, men had wizard power over you, they could make you do anything they wanted.”
Jesse, who regularly appeals to Cher through ESP the way other girls might have appealed to St. Agnes or St. Therese through prayer, finds temporary refuge from this impending doom with Jill, a fatherless girl who, Jesse says, “had the spark and intensity of a downed electrical wire” and possesses an imagination even fiercer than her own. “Jill felt all the people in Bent Tree had known each other in earlier lives,” says Jesse. “All the souls gathered together in the duplexes had always been linked, first in the same Indian tribe, and before that, as members of a royal French family and, before that, as slaves owned by the same Pharaoh.” Combining forces with Jill, Jesse creates a pop-culture infused spirituality that gives them a wizard power all their own. When her friend is despondent, Jesse knows that if Jill could get it together enough to intone the melodramatic speech given in the opening credits of Dark Shadows, she’ll cheer up. Together they fantasize that David Cassidy wants them for sex slaves, and try to give themselves visions while smoking a bean pod in the bathroom of a fancy restaurant at the mall. These two are a giddily demented update on Anne of Green Gables and her best friend Diana. But the magic Jesse and Jill cook up, of course, can’t protect either of them against suffering — it doesn’t prevent Jill from running away, and it doesn’t prevent Jesse, in her absence, from giving up and trying to become blank and popular, and it doesn’t prevent Jesse from replacing Jill with Pam, a smart, wise outcast who “thought cute things — babies, kittens, puppies — were actually dense patches of God.” When Jill returns home, as furiously born-again as she used to be furiously imaginative, Jesse cannot forgive her for such a betrayal, and she ignores Jill’s repeated pleas to attend her baptism.
Jesse’s father doesn’t believe in the ceremony, but he thinks it’s important for Jesse to be there and encourages her to attend. Finally, begrudgingly, Jesse does, and the scene is radiant with ironies. When the pastor readies Jill for her baptism, he declares that “There is no doubt in my mind that the spirit is at work in our little sister,” and the reader may smirk a little knowing that Jill is so filled with the spirit that she tried to talk to Jesus through the black art of a Ouija board. And Jesse, who’s grown into a skeptic, is gripped by a very believable, very moving burst of mysticism-in-spite-of-itself. As Jill’s pastor dips her into the water, Jesse swallows what she wants to shout:
“Say no! I thought. Say you want yourself all for your own self. Say that you have no specific country, say that you are important without any story from above, say that your home is with me and the other girls up in the sky.”
Suddenly, and perhaps too late, the book turns into a powerful lament for the ultimate impotence of all the magic we dabble in — religion, ghost stories, sex, Hollywood, ancestry, rock music, etc. But these last urgent pages suggest that there is one form of salvific magic that is very real, when one is lucky (not blessed) enough to find it: true friendship between bright and curious girls.