MAY 31, 2019
MESHA MAREN’S Sugar Run is a novel as unlikely as it is brutal.
For all the desperate ex-cons, pill-popping moms, and backwoods human traffickers who populate its pages, it’s almost alarming to find, at the edges, glimmers of pastoral beauty. Take for instance ex-con protagonist Jodi’s recollections of the West Virginia property where she spent her childhood and where, at the beginning of the novel, she posts up illegally after an 18-year bid for murder: “[T]he soft hills of orchard grass, neon toadstools spiking up through rotting stumps, the perfect palm-size smoothness of horse chestnuts, and the celestial patterns of oak leaves in the pond ice that split with a bright cracking sound under the pressure of her boots.” Or Jodi’s ecstatic vision of a train snaking through mountainous coal country: “[Jodi] smoked and watched a train down in the valley, shivering in and out of the dark trees, the tracks a silver ladder stretching out eternally.”
The effect of encountering such passages — and there are many — in a novel as hard-charging as Sugar Run is like hearing birdcall in the wake of a gruesome shootout, or finding a swallowed heist diamond glinting in the sawed-open guts of a cadaver. It comes so unexpected — a weird, tender gift. We barely recognize it for the mercy it grants us.
Which isn’t to say that a novel like Sugar Run — a hard-bitten, lyrical country noir — is without precedent. Cormac McCarthy, Dorothy Allison, Annie Proulx, William Gay, and Daniel Woodrell especially have all produced similar books, and Maren larks among their echoes. But Sugar Run isn’t derivative, really, just a novel that embraces its literary heritage head-on, sometimes conforming and sometimes subverting, and it manages in the process to produce something entirely poignant and new.
As a country noir, though, it nails all the beats.
In the novel’s first pages, Jodi, paroled from prison into a newborn daze, hops on a bus bound for Chaunceloraine, Georgia, to “help a friend.” Once she gets there, shacking up in a fleabag motel with her whiskey and cigarettes, Jodi crosses paths with Miranda, a speed-addled mother of three with an on-the-rocks marriage to an aging country star; “[Miranda] shook her long pale hair” and “carried with her a certain spotlight of shimmering.” Scarcely have they begun chatting at the bar where they meet than Jodi “wanted to reach out and touch her, right there where her neck curved elegantly up toward the back of her skull.”
Jodi and Miranda’s fling both anchors and is, in some ways, completely ancillary to Sugar Run’s unfolding. But that doesn’t discount its power — for Jodi, who comes to see Miranda as the ill-advised answer to all her life lacks, and for the reader, privy to a relationship as desperate and broken as it is meteoric and melancholy. Jodi, watching Miranda in another bar, on another half-drunken night, observes: “She turned slowly, fresh drink in hand, and Jodi pictured her as a bright ball hurtling through the universe and coming to land, violent and precise, on someone’s sleeping skin.”
But Jodi and Miranda don’t have much time for pillow talk, a testament to Sugar Run’s narrative engine. Abducting, in a friendly way, Miranda’s three sons Kaleb, Donnie, and Ross (Jodi lures them with ice cream) as well as damaged space-cadet Ricky, the “friend” whom Jodi hoped to help in Chaunceloraine because of his painful and indelible link to the crime that landed her in prison, Jodi and Miranda book it up to Render, West Virginia, where Jodi hopes to make a life for the six of them on her grandma Ellie’s ancestral spread. But they arrive on the land only to find it “ripe with disuse,” nearly reincorporated into the forest around it. The title is no longer Jodi’s; a man from Florida own its now. And surrounding the land on every side is a toxic stranglehold of fracking.
Jodi hopes and hopes and hopes — despite foreboding setbacks and odds stacked against her. This is a large part of what makes her such a compelling and pathos-rich character; she refuses to pity herself or relent. And it’s this quality, juxtaposed against her brooding, heavy drinking, visceral class resentment, and unhealthy obsession with Miranda, that makes for an invented person so real we come to feel at any moment Jodi might slouch off the page and tip a whiskey flask at us. She’s rangy and leathery, work-worn and hungry, with “cavernous cheeks and pit-dark eyes.” When she first meets with a congenial young lawyer to discuss the prospect of getting her land back, her mind instantly funnels toward the trap of all she’s been denied in life. “This man,” Jodi observes, “carried with him a nearly visible halo of money-education-confidence-ease, a gauzy light of protection, and even as he spoke kindly to her she could barely stand to listen.” Not to mention that as an ex-con in America now Jodi can no more find a job and reinvent herself than resist being drawn steadily back into the criminality that put her where she is. “Who’s gonna hire me when they see the Class B felony?” Jodi asks her parole officer, who shrugs in response.
It’s heartbreaking and inevitable. We feel it and dread it. But for Jodi it’s only the way of the world.
As Jodi, Miranda, and the boys fall into an uneasy rhythm squatting on the property in Render, enjoying the lush woods, and getting acquainted with elderly, off-the-grid neighbor Farren, Jodi’s sketchy family members begin to insinuate themselves back into her life. Principally, her brother Dennis, a small-time weed dealer who’s working his way up to selling low-grade heroin in bulk. This proves a clever way for Maren to move the plot along while also addressing the dual scourges of much of contemporary rural America: opioids and environmental degradation due to fracking. Dennis shows up congenial, smoking a joint, to stow dubious bundles in Jodi’s barn rafters. Jodi, in need of the money he offers, can’t bring herself to say no with much force.
With all these stakes and crises elegantly accruing throughout Sugar Run’s present-day (or rather, 2007) timeline, it’s easy to lose sight of a whole other narrative substratum in the novel: Jodi’s pre-prison days in the late 1980s, Jodi only 19, with her first girlfriend, Paula. We know from the beginning of Sugar Run that Jodi was somehow complicit in Paula’s violent death. In “the hot chaos of a hotel room in Atlanta,” we get in a flash “the air heavy with iron-thick blood — the paramedics wheeling Paula’s body away.” We’re also privy to the story of their heedless, venal courtship in clipped interludes over the course of the novel’s main timeline. Ricky, it turns out, is Paula’s younger brother, who Paula promised to save from an abusive household before she died (a promise which, in 2007, Jodi makes good on when she ferries him from Chaunceloraine up to Render). When we first meet Paula herself, in a low-rent casino in 1988, she’s wild and intriguing — to us and to Jodi. “She could be beautiful if she didn’t look so strange,” Jodi observes,
dressed in the same worn flannel and work boots that all the men in Jodi’s family wear, a web of blue-black tattoos sleeving the skin of both arms. She is softly familiar but altogether different, a mixture of beautiful and ugly that wavers, like a hologram. Sharp cheekbones and a full pout of a mouth. She’s built like a country boy too, broad in the shoulders, thick biceps, and narrow hips.
Jodi and Paula’s timeline is also where Sugar Run draws its title. “‘All it takes it just one great hand,’ Paula [tells Jodi] between swallows of beer. ‘Just one night, with one sweet sugar run, and you’re hooked.’” Presumably, this modus operandi is meant to translate to the 2007 timeline as well, with Jodi, Miranda, and the boys attempting to simultaneously outrun and recreate their pasts. That, of course, in the end gets them nowhere good fast; even as they’re moving forward, they’re always being channeled back. It’s a supple conceit, but one that grows faintly bogged down in an otherwise sinuous and effective novel. As Jodi and Paula venture upon their “sugar run,” hustling and holding up poker games on a speed-and-booze-fueled spree in Paula’s Cutlass, Maren shows her hand a little. Jodi is jealous of Paula’s flirtations. A .38 is introduced. The lovers drink and snort so much the world starts to tilt into grim unreality. All the same, given that Maren has adopted here the reliable noir convention of revealing the nature of the crime while keeping the reason it happens a mystery, she’s able to hustle us through Jodi and Paula’s implosion with relatively little contrivance, and even some gallows humor along the way.
Sugar Run’s ending approaches transcendent; Maren really sticks the landing. The principal characters — Jodi, Miranda, and Ricky — all build toward crises, some involving pills and exes, others involving heroin buybacks and those backwoods human traffickers I mentioned at the start, who finally make their appearances known in a grim action set piece that gets the blood pumping. But where Maren really succeeds is with Jodi, desperately trying to keep things together. Both a casualty and an unwilling cause of a series of very bad decisions, we care about her somewhat more than we should, though for us to feel anything less would be monstrous. This double bind illustrates one of Maren’s most impressive skills as a writer: adjudicating, lovingly, the manner of future that Jodi deserves.
Flannery O’Connor, another writer to whom Maren is indebted, once wrote, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” This is of course true not only of O’Connor’s life, racked by lupus, but also the lives of the characters who populate her fiction. Whether shot dead in the road by an escaped convict or obliterated by a massive stroke on a city bus, O’Connor’s characters are time and again savaged by life so they can transcend it and find themselves robed in whatever divinity awaits them. The end of Sugar Run sees Maren taking a complementary but distinct approach with Jodi, and one that signals to a generosity of spirit uncommon in much of crime fiction. At one moment in Sugar Run’s climax, Jodi is pointing a gun — as we find her, for ill, in the last Paula section. At whom, I will decline to name. The next one, she “followed the river south” into
nothing then but the darkness, the layers of it fragmenting before her, and the steady murmur of the trees stretching over a landscape so old it was half hidden in itself, a land that had been sinking for so long its surface was only a scrim over the density that lay below. It was this, Jodi thought, this thick secrecy that haunted her, kept her coming back and wanting more, dreaming of the place even when she was in the midst of it.
Sugar Run’s flashes of pastoral beauty amid so much violence and ruin translate at the end of the novel into a kind of grace for Jodi less theistic than O’Connor’s, but just as profound in its implications.
Jodi’s passage through life will be hard, sure enough. May it always skirt such visions.