“What if we’re just idiot robots, with no souls, being controlled by some outside force? What if we’re just, like, medicated zombies?”
—Erika Carter’s Lucky You
Erika Carter’s debut novel, Lucky You, is very strange.
Three young women live chaotically in Fayetteville, Arkansas. They have sex with country singers, unfaithful husbands, and nutty environmental cult leaders. All have substance abuse problems. Ellie drinks herself into oblivion, Rachel smokes weed, and unstable Chloe joins in.
It’s Valley of the Dolls in the Ozarks.
Though as racy a read as Valley of the Dolls, Erika Carter’s debut novel is well-crafted and often exquisite. Carter has more in common stylistically with Mary Gaitskill, the prima donna of dysfunction, than with the potboiler writer, Jacqueline Susann.
Nonetheless, when I tell you that Carter’s character Chloe, who has trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder), seems the least self-destructive of her three heroines, you may wonder, as I did, why one reviewer considered this novel “charming.”
Carter is in control of her harrowing narrative, and her graceful writing seems effortless as she switches points-of-view so we can see the three heroines inside-out. We’re supposed to get the idea that their inability to find good jobs makes them passive, but I don’t buy it. (When have liberal arts students ever found good jobs?) Ellie and Rachel are recent graduates of the University of Arkansas, and Chloe dropped out before graduating. Ellie and Chloe are waitresses at the Viceroy, a sleazy bar, and Rachel also worked there before she and her boyfriend moved to the Ozarks.
The book starts and ends with beautiful Ellie, who majored in English and still reads haiku. But she watches TV all day and drinks while she waits for her country musician boyfriend Jim to come back from touring in Texas. After a while it’s clear he isn’t coming back.
The novel begins with gorgeous, wryly humorously writing. I love the repetition, the anaphora, and the vivid images.
An ice storm just knocked the electricity out, like the weatherman said it would–but did she listen? She didn’t listen. She didn’t prepare. She had flashlights with dead batteries, candles but no matches. A fireplace full of plants.
In a way, this is Ellie all over. She has a wry sense of humor, but doesn’t channel it as a saving grace. She drinks so much that she’s barely conscious. When she’s walking down the icy street alone after a night drinking at a bar, she’s not adverse to letting three black guys pick her up and inviting them to her apartment for shots and sex. In fact, she’s so drunk that she thinks there are four of them. And she doesn’t remember the sex until she finds the empty box of condoms under her bed.
Chloe, another waitress at the Viceroy, hates Ellie, who confides in her about Jim. It seems to Chloe, who is going bald from her disorder, that Ellie has everything. Chloe is in danger, as far as her mental health goes: she doesn’t mind the repetitive work at the bar, but lives next door to a noisy fraternity, where the obnoxious boys have loud parties and do unspeakable things, such as spray-paint a cat and it dies. And she has no relationships. After Ellie disappears (she moves to Bentonville without telling anyone and has S/M sex with her boss), Chloe and Jim become friends, and then live together. But Jim tours a lot. Chloe is alone.
Rachel claims she and her boyfriend Autry are saving the environment by living in his parents’ house in the Ozarks, where they never flush the toilet, and though they aren’t very good gardeners and are incapable of living off the land, she invites her friends to live with them. Eventually, Ellie and Chloe are so down-and-out they move in. And autocratic Autry demands they stay together for a year so he can write a book about living off the grid.
Well, things don’t go very well. And I kept wanting to say, Get out now!
In a way this is a coming-of-age novel: a late coming-of-age novel. I do recommend this book–it is a lightning-fast read–but I wonder: why so many talented young women writing about self-destructive heroines? There’s Emma Kline’s The Girls, Natasha Stagg’s Surveys, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing.
I prescribe for these young writers a strong dose of Dorothy Richardson, Erica Jong, Margaret Drabble, and Doris Lessing.
P.S. Fayetteville is a lovely university town. I once bought a straw safari hat at a bridal shop there!