At a bit of a loss at what to do, I read an issue of the London Review of Books and a review of Nell Zink’s most recent books, Nicotine and Private Novelist, piqued my interest. Her first two books, Mislaid and The Wallcreeper, are on sale as a package on Amazon, so I downloaded them to my Kindle and got to reading.

I’m not quite sure how to describe Mislaid. It’s a story about a lesbian who marries a gay man and has two children, and it’s also a novel about the frustration of dreams, about racial politics in the US, and it’s written with so many laugh-out-loud sentences that it’s hard to pick favourites.

Because it’s also about a not-very-good father (“Fatherhood surprised him pleasantly. As a male he assumed no unpleasant duties would accrue to him. He would be responsible for teaching the child conversational skills once it reached its teens”), and the daughter is fair haired and blue eyed, and I’m alone without my daughters for weeks this summer, I suppose it couldn’t have been designed better as an emotional Exocet to twang my heart strings. Why else would I be brought to huge, heaving sobs at the climatic court-case reunion of the family?

The plot (which hardly seems the point of this book) is around Peggy, a sensitive soul at Stillwater, a women’s college in Virginia. When upset, she “consoled herself with [the trees’] appearance, as she thought a more sensitive person might.” That felt very similar to my own teenage experience. When Zink then goes on to describe “moonless nights in Stillwater were dark as the inside of a cow” it’s a wonderfully crude analogy, a reference to the Groucho Marx joke that outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend (inside a dog, it’s too dark to read) and neat foreshadowing that a soon-to-be-pregnant Peggy will moand like a cow.

Peggy has a shotgun marriage to Lee, the gay poet-in-residence at Stillwater, and in short order has two children, a boy and a girl, and then leaves with Merielle, the younger of the two. In a reference to Robert Ludlum potboilers, she goes to a local cemetary and finds a dead child of a similar age to her daughter, and then gets a birth certificate to hide her identity (so concerned that Lee will have her committed to an asylum, she hides for years in a shack). Merielle’s new identity, Karen Brown, was a black girl (Merielle is blonde and blue eyed) but

Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people. Virginia was settled before slavery began, and it was diverse. There were tawny black people with hazel eyes. Black people with auburn hair, skin like butter, and eyes of deep blue green. Blond, blue-eyed black people remebling a recent chairman of the NAACP.

But this is only the jumping off point for all sorts of commentary on the iniquities of gentrification, feminist discovery grops, the pretentions of New York City, and much else. There’s even a joke about accents of the Deep South and Jean-Paul Sartre in there, which makes it good value.

After all, it’s difficult these days. “You couldn’t tell by looking who was a natural blonde, and certainly not which blondes were black.”

Oh, and along the way, because Peggy can’t get any other job while trying to hide her identity, she becomes a drug dealer in partnership with Lomax, an Indian, and a retired Navy Seal, the three of them inadvertently selling PCP when she thinks she’s been selling cocaine, which leads to the wonderful dialogue:

“And we had them all paying cocaine prices,” Lomax said.
“Aw, man. We were dicking people over right and left. Is that the kind of person I want to be?”

“I’m losing all my ideals right here, right now,” the Seal said. “I mean it, I’m going to give up narcotics and go to work as a mercenary in Sri Lanka.”

THe whole novel feels very much like an update of Austen, at least in structure if not language (though the archness of it is very congruent – there’s a great phrase, after talking about a District Attorney trying to make his name on a case involving an ‘acid whore’ – “Decency forbids further reproduction of his shameful imaginings”); or is it perhaps Dickens? At the end, Peggy and Lee’s two children end up at the same university (Karen gets there through affirmative action) and then involved in a criminal entrapment sting, and then finally the whole family is reunited (this is the point at which I was bawling with tears, worried there would be some cruel last-act twist to deny me a happy ending).

It’s very much of a piece with The Sellout, at once a demented comedy with race at its centre (plus a lot more driven by sexuality, or the fluidity of it) and something much deeper and more subversive, that as a middle-aged man who society has generally been built for, can’t really comment on at all. So I can say it moved me, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, but it was really something incredible, and a reason for me to wish I read the LRB more frequently.


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