NOVEMBER 20, 2014
I GREW UP in South San Francisco, “The Industrial City.” My girlfriends and I dreamed of being nuns and catching the Zodiac Killer. We spent much of our time swiping vodka from our parents’ wet bars and washing it down with fountain water on the junior high playground. South City wasn’t exactly “rough,” but it wasn’t exactly suburban either. Our houses were tight and tiny and made of brick and you knew not to hang around the streets at night. We went to crab cioppino fests, made our first holy communions, and danced like madmen to The Jackson Five.
South City was my town, and I still love the place with feverish devotion. Hit me with a strong, cold wind or a fog bank, and I’m right back to its unlikely charms: strip malls, the smell of wet sweaters, and the frenzy of bingo.
In her new novel-in-stories, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, Judy Chicurel conjures just such a hometown for 18-year-old Katie Hanson. The fictional Elephant Beach, somewhere on the scummy shore near New York City, was once prosperous, the playground of celebrities like Cab Calloway and Florenz Ziegfield, but now, in the summer of 1972, it has fallen into ruin. The once gorgeous waterfront hotel is a home for psychiatric patients who wander the streets, the boardwalk is crumbling, and the town’s main drag, the gathering place for all the town’s young people, is beginning to feel claustrophobic. Even Katie, who loves her adopted city, notes, “You couldn’t hide anything on Comanche Street; the houses were so close together the neighbors could hear every cough, every moan during the night. They often ended up in one another’s dreams by mistake.”
In “City Boy,” a story she published in Granta, Chicurel explores the relationship between a lost young woman, the boy she mentors, and the consequences of inaction. In this new book with its mouthful title (don’t worry, it pays off beautifully in the end), Chicurel expands on her themes of connection and missed possibilities and structures a vivid sequence of stories that builds into a riveting and poignant coming of age tale. Although this is ostensibly a collection of “linked” short stories, the book reads like a novel, with crisscrossing characters and story threads that add up to something very nearly miraculous and unexpectedly profound.
Katie is obsessed with Luke, a golden boy surfer just returned from Vietnam. She has loved him since she was 13, but lacks the courage to speak to him. Complicating the situation is the fact that Luke has come back “messed up.” He surfs before dawn, avoids eye contact, and sits for hours in front of his bedroom window. Katie’s desire to be with him before the end of the summer is the narrative thread that pulls us through the stories, and her fantasy of their union is the dream that colors the whole collection.
As Katie haunts Luke, we meet the other citizens of Elephant Beach. Mitch, a raggedy, 30-ish, alcoholic Vietnam vet who lost his leg in battle, staggers through town and is Katie’s confidant. Although he’s blasted 99 percent of the time and smells terrible, he is the spiritual center of the book and the de facto, stumbling king of Elephant Beach. Katie’s best friends are Nanny and Liz, the former sleeping with a guy named Voodoo, and the latter dating someone who works at her dad’s car dealership (she gets pregnant in an AMC Gremlin, “the only car that had been available at the time”). Ginger is a lonely girl, left adrift after a teenaged pregnancy. In fact, two of Katie’s friends give birth, and while Maggie Mayhew’s labor is a madcap 1970s home delivery where lighters are fired up to make the baby come faster, 17-year-old Ginger, alone at the hospital, drops her newborn in one hour “like a kitten.” Katie and Nanny and Liz come to visit her and we see firsthand the legacy of Elephant Beach. Though she’s giving her baby up for adoption, Ginger says sadly of the teen motherhood she shares with both her mother and sister, “It’s in the blood.”
The three Feeney Sisters are legendary for beating the crap out of anyone who crosses them: Moira, the quiet one, can turn deadly and slap your face in a second; fiery Fiona hides her eyes, blackened from fighting, under Jackie O sunglasses; Dierdre is just plain gorgeous. When Fiona Feeney discovers that Georgie, the only openly gay teen in town, has been beaten by her sister’s boyfriend, she confronts the boyfriend, smacks him in the face in front of all of his friends and says, “He knows who he is. You know who you are, Jimmy?” Despite having absent or neglectful mothers, the girls in this book swarm protectively around their tribe (including the “fourth Feeney sister,” Georgie), loving, defending, and parenting each other through abortions, bad relationships, and disappointment. What I loved most about the book was Chicurel’s strong message about the power of female friendship and how deeply she digs at the concept of identity.
It is in the book’s comic dialogue that Chicurel, a playwright, truly shines. Each character has a distinctive voice, and all the voices weave together to create a blue-collar chorus that reflects a very specific time. It’s 1972 after all, and everyone punctuates and finishes their sentences with “man” — “I love my mother, man, but she can barely open a can of Spam” and “Wow Katie, man, that’s intense.” When one of the girls from The Dunes (the fancy part of town) says of her black boyfriend’s mother, “She had such a deep history of oppression… Working for the man, that total distrust of los ojos claros, you know, the light eyed ones,” we don’t know whether to laugh or be horrified. Profound thoughts are often interrupted by the mundane, as when, in one of the final stories, Liz somberly says to Katie, “Man, I don’t know. I always thought he was more — more manly or something, right? Instead of this, like — shit, am I getting a zit on my friggin eyelid?”
Ghosts haunt the entire collection. Katie is haunted by her desire for Luke; Luke walks around like a shadow, drugs take out several of Katie’s friends, and the specters of Vietnam, World War II, and the city’s long gone, glorious past hang heavy over all. Everything seems to be dying, and yet the people of Elephant Beach are fiercely alive. This tension between life and death, light and dark, comic turns and tragic outcomes gives each story a primal power.
While Katie is a passive observer throughout much of the action, her quiet participation in this community of loud mouths is riveting. We want her to get what she wants — and so much more. She ultimately steps into her power, and the scene where she and Luke finally connect is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
The summer winds down into the bittersweet pull of endings. As Katie and the Feeney sisters drive Georgie to his new digs in New York City (where hopefully he’ll be able to “ball the hell out of some guys”), even the bitchy Feeneys start to sob. Moira, the one who never cries, takes another swig of Cold Duck and demands her sister pull over to the side of the road. They commandeer a little Puerto Rican boy with frosting around his mouth to take their Polaroid portrait. “He had to take four pictures before we found one that wasn’t too light or too dark, where no shadows lay across our faces, where nobody’s eyes were closed and everyone remembered to smile and we finally looked the way we wanted to and would never look again.”
It’s a convention of coming of age books that everything changes in that “last summer” after high school. But Chicurel plays against this device. In Elephant Beach, where these girls can only hope to attend Sacred Heart Secretarial School, or to move to NYC and become a junior executive’s mistress, there’s not much to look forward to. Still, Chicurel leaves us with some hope. One of the Feeney sisters turns out to have a head for business, and Katie is one of the chosen, having been admitted as a “day” student at the local community college.
If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go offers a window into the twilight right before Katie grows up.
But she could be any young woman teetering on the brink of independence.
Chicurel’s summer of 1972 brought me right back to South San Francisco. To the fog. To my friends. To a time when everything was possible, and I was young.