ONCE, EARLY ON in my waitressing career, while clearing one of my tables, I found a sapphire and diamond ring on the floor. I flirted with the idea of taking the ring — God knows I could’ve used the pawn money — but I turned it over to my boss instead. She said that she’d put it in the safe and find its owner. Not more than a week later, I saw her wearing the ring. I could feel myself becoming more cynical and opportunistic: the next ring I found I probably wouldn’t give away.

I remember we servers had fights by the ice machine over who got to wait on a couple I’ll call the Littles because they were “low maintenance, fat tip.” Old money — three-piece suits for him, gloves and hats for her — and eccentric, they insisted on bringing their own plastic cups, forks, knives, and spoons, which we had to wash and dry for them after their meal so that they could take their plasticware home.

I knew their mansion was being “touched up,” and so to make small talk while I served them one afternoon, I asked how the renovation was coming. Mrs. Little cupped her hand to her mouth, as if she was going to tell me a secret and didn’t want Francisco, who happened to be clearing their plates, to hear. I leaned down. “It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for all those brownies doing construction work,” she said. I moved back. “They steal things,” she said earnestly, eyeing Francisco as he carried off their plates, “brownies do. You can’t trust them.” Her husband nodded in grave agreement.

“What’d she say?” Francisco asked me later. I told him. After that, Francisco liked to remind me, “I’ll never be a waiter because I’m a brownie.”

I waited tables for close to 20 years, raising two sons and funding my writing that way. I experienced the hierarchies and power struggles among the staff, the racial inequalities, the squabbling over tips and jockeying for “good” tables, the sexually charged atmosphere as well as the sensual pleasures of being around all that food, and candlelight and wine; people were always dressed up, and perfume drifted in the air. I saw the physical intimacy between co-workers, the alcohol and drug abuse, the wounded people becoming more so. I came to share permanent bonds with fellow workers (even the ones I couldn’t stand) founded on our survival in a high-stress and frantic environment.

In her extraordinary debut novel Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce captures the service industry life I knew right down to the storage shed where my co-workers copulated among the dry goods.

Her description of Tanya, who “exhibited the classic mix I’ve seen in certain individuals who’ve been in the business for ten years or more” hit a little too close to home: “an air of woundedness, of insult, attributable to their prolonged servitude, combined with an in-spite-of-it pride in their personal performance of the job.” Tanya’s bar-rotted “soggy bread”–looking thumb is an image I still can’t shake.

Tierce nails how the woundedness of people who work in restaurants is connected to the degradation of their jobs. “I always knew I was good with him if he said I love you back, not I love you too,” Marie Young, Love Me Back’s young adult narrator, says about Cal, a black hustler/server extraordinaire, 22 years her senior. Cal is one of a number of men who use and abuse Marie, although he, unlike the others — in a distinctly cruel and manipulative power play — won’t have sex with her (or let her touch him), no matter how much she wants to.

Marie doesn’t dare hope for love. Cal’s “love you back” simply means Marie is in Cal’s good graces — for now — and in her black-hole quest for male attention of the seedy and degrading and provisional kind, this placates her.

On a busy Valentine’s night at The Restaurant, the high-end steakhouse in Dallas, Texas, where Marie and Cal work, they serve in choreographed efficiency (mid-argument) within a whirling workplace of continuous action. Tierce’s stark and fierce prose shines in these intimacy-loaded behind-the-scenes moments when servers have near-telepathic communication in the intricate orchestration of table service.

A hard worker, Marie has a fierce pride in her abilities. During that Valentine’s shift and argument, Cal “knew to get to me, ignore what I said and go for my work, imply that I was lazy, that I didn’t have standards as good as his.”

Love Me Back relays Marie’s story in time-shifting vignettes, which gives the novel a displaced feel — some of its chapters were originally published as short stories — that matches Marie’s confused emotions and willfully disjointed consciousness. But like a puzzle coming together, a portrait emerges of a young mother who is neither ready nor fit to be a mother, a wife who doesn’t want to be a wife, and an intelligent, skilled, self-supporting, hard-working waitress bent on destroying herself.

Marie met the father of her child on a five-day mission trip to Mexico and found herself pregnant at 16. A high school valedictorian accepted at Yale, Marie’s future is derailed by her pregnancy, and the shame heaped on her by her father and (male) church leaders sends her psyche into a downward spiral.

Pregnant, she temps at the corporate office of Sally Beauty Company (as did Tierce), but then she begins waitressing at The Olive Garden, moves to Chili’s and various other restaurants, until she ends up at The Restaurant, a posh steakhouse whose clientele includes celebrities, surgeons, a bishop — the crème de la crème of Dallas society. On her server-career journey, Marie, from age 17 to 22, learns (mostly from her various men) how to take drugs, orgasm and otherwise become sexually proficient, and wait tables.

“I didn’t understand how to be a wife or mother,” she says. “But there were rules to being a waitress.” She finds a reprieve in the work’s stultifying, time-blotting atmosphere. Humanity — as it does — flickers through once in a while nonetheless.

I tried to stiff my busser once. I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t made any money that night. Maybe thirty-five dollars and it was two days past my due date. We were supposed to give the busser three percent of our sales and they had to initial the cashout. I just skipped that part and the busser said something to Tara. She confronted me and said Mama I know you’re about to pop and all but that shit is not cool. Give him his money and don’t ever do that again. He’s got a family too.

I’m so sorry, I said to him. I know he was mad when he told Tara but when I told him I was sorry he hugged me and said it was okay. I gave him the money. It was only six dollars.

Sexuality is a complicated terrain, and Tierce mines it unabashedly. As a young mother, Marie’s sexuality burgeons, and then it blooms. One night, after sex with Damon, the man who gives her her first orgasm, her milk comes out in “streams streaking away from my body.” But Marie’s awakening veers sharply into self-destruction, compulsion.

Tierce bravely subverts the male gaze into a female one, in that Marie is the one objectifying men, finding what is pleasing to her. Her behavior is definitely driven by her desire, her vision, her attraction — which is one thing that makes this book so unusual. Yet even though she’s making the choices, her sexual journey is still steeped in degradation and humiliation.

Marie loves men, appreciates them, and ranks them according to beauty and power. She describes them in lush detail. “The third man I’d ever had sex with,” she tells us, “was an ex-corrections officer who is six-four and the most gorgeous man I’ve seen or ever will.” She adds, “The strength in him was panther-dark and menacing and in spite of the ordinary green lines across the toes of his dress socks I was too scared of him to get wet. He fucked me anyway, with a giant penis I couldn’t bring myself to look at.” This same man, who is much older, is later fired for harassing the underage “salad girl.”

Of John, who gives Marie chlamydia, which she passes on to her husband and two other men, Marie offers:

On his chest the tattooed face of a pit bull he said was the best friend he’d ever had, on his left calf a beckoning bare-titted mermaid. […] On his wedding finger a black band where a ring would go. […] Uncircumcised and he’d once had a Prince Albert but said it stopped him from penetrating as hard as he wanted to.

DeMarcus, a fellow waiter who fucks her in a truck, along with his brother, “has fantastic teeth and tight waves. He’s tall and lanky and he smells good.”

This appreciation of men — this connoisseurship — has echoes, say, of John Updike’s connoisseurship of women, and it serves Marie as a cover, a rationale for her compulsive, high-risk sexuality in the same way a cultivated appreciation for wine or spirits can serve as a cover for alcoholism.

There’s a detachment to Tierce’s writing: her prose has a post-traumatic-stress-like disconnection but also a visceral immediacy and intimacy — stripped and matter-of-fact, no quotation marks and scant commas — that practically forces the reader to participate in Marie’s experiences. This can be brutal.

Early in the book, Marie says, “my mind was an open sore. It was black. […] I would imagine being fatally cleaved all day long.” Marie’s self-hatred is connected to Analisa, the daughter she abandons. But Ana is also her center, and in some of the book’s most wrenching passages, Marie addresses her as “you.”

“I burn my neck with a fondue skewer while you watch The Cosby Show on my bed. […] I know the skin will make a popping sound and I don’t want you to hear it.” And, again: “I feel a soaring bliss — I adore you — I feel a plummeting ugly resentment — I am a pile of shit falling endlessly down a dark shaft, I am the hate that hurled the shit and the fear inside the hurled shit.”

The novel is very daring and sexy, but this sexiness also problematic because of Marie’s self-hatred and self-abasement. In every sexual encounter, there’s a power dynamic in play, and Marie, for all her agency, is smaller, submissive, and finally humiliated. The men usually do with her what they please; only a few take her pleasure in hand. Her own gratification comes from being sexually adept, but even as she learns to enjoy it, sex is an escape, often a terrific risk, loveless, and, again, ultimately humiliating — although the humiliation is what’s arousing to her and, I admit uncomfortably, to the reader. Marie may behave “like a man” in having sex with whomever she pleases, but somehow she’s still the one being debased. Her story is not pretty to watch, but it is powerful and compelling.

Though the novel’s point of view is a first-person retrospective, Marie isn’t far enough removed from her suffering and behavior to have much perspective on its source (there are hints) or consequences.

Tierce is perhaps most brilliant in showing how the prostitute-like, soul-sucking qualities of work in the service industry are conducive to Marie’s self-destruction, and vice versa. In both spheres of her life she is constantly jockeying for money and power; she’s hyperaware of her place in the restaurant hierarchy, and she’s constantly exposed to customers who are crude, insensitive, and sexist; to earn good money, she has to swallow her dignity. Work and sex become all transactional to her. She begins to think like a grifter: How do I get more? How do I get mine? How is this person getting more than I am? In the workplace (and, it would seem, in her sexual life), everyone is trying to pull something over on someone else. “Once you figure out that everything is performance,” Marie says, “and you bow to that, learn to modulate, you can dissociate from the mothership of yourself like an astronaut floating in space.”

Again and again, Marie’s actions — sexual and otherwise — aim toward self-obliteration without break or awareness or hope. Yet she breathes on the page, undeniably sexual, fucked up, complicated, and alive: she dares us to acknowledge her.

I was glad to have read Love Me Back — twice! — for this review, and reading it changed me. But it was also so painful, I know I could never read it again. 

¤

Victoria Patterson’s third novel, Little Brother, will be published in 2015.