There is a certain kind of small town in the West, the sort of place you see driving through Wyoming and Montana that seems rather overwhelmed by the big, flat, empty space surrounding it.
The town appears vulnerable to all that land pulling at its edges, and you sense, in such a place, that the people who live there might begin to feel their lives expand laterally, as if growing flatter as the years ago by, like a tire steadily losing precious air.
Madrid, Mont., the setting of Deirdre McNamer’s first novel, “Rima in the Weeds,” feels like that kind of place. You know this town. It has a drive-in movie theater at one end and a rodeo arena at the other. The tallest buildings around are grain silos. Kids with hair so short you can see the pinkness of their scalps whiz by on bikes or shaggy horses.
Populist political views prevail, though they slip predominately to the right. Elks, Lions, Moose--the whole panoply of fraternal orders --meet regularly. Such a place might look peaceful to an outsider, but what you often don’t see, just driving through, are all the little eddies of eccentricity and madness spinning privately like dust devils in the back yards.
McNamer does see these disturbances, the wound-up tensions in a place like Madrid, the inner spirals of loneliness and despair which often spin fastest in women who are in the economic margins, not exactly bereft of purpose, but often left to invent one for their lives. McNamer writes about such states rather poetically, with restraint and insight, and in doing so, elevates this novel above the ordinary.
The story revolves around a 10-year-old girl named Margaret Greenfield, whose favorite fantasy game is playing Rima the Jungle Girl from “Green Mansions,” and a young unmarried mother named Dorrie Vane, who left Madrid to go to college in Chicago only to return to her hometown with a baby and a niggling sense of defeat.
Young Margaret is fascinated by the newly returned Dorrie, who has come “out of nowhere,” looking “gorgeous” in her funny hat and long city coat--"a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy and Kay Francis.”
Margaret begins baby-sitting for Dorrie and as their lives intertwine it becomes apparent how they represent the child and adult versions of the same person--a person shaped by the forces of a small town, full of yearnings and fantasies even into adulthood, and an awkward sense of self. Seeing Margaret dancing all alone in the street one night, Dorrie studies the child and thinks of her own blind and unsuspecting youth: “The slumping Margaret was Dorrie herself. She stared at the girl and hated her.”
In fact, Dorrie cares for Margaret. What she really hates is her own early naivete: “How could I have been a child who didn’t even suspect that my family was rupturing, bleeding internally, or that, when I left town, I was attached to a long, long rope that was going to yank me back, hard, when I’d made a big enough mess on my own?”
An important aspect of the story is the fact it’s set in 1962, against a backdrop of the Cold War. Madrid is surrounded by underground Minuteman missile silos. Dorrie lands a job as a waitress in a steakhouse called the Target that caters to the missile workers, each of whom is ready and waiting to send “incinerating light” to the Soviet Union, if necessary, when the right moment arrives.
It’s an America of innocence and madness pictured here. Dorrie’s father, Earl Vane, is a John Bircher who harasses the local librarian, Holly, because she keeps Life magazine on the shelf instead of American Opinion. Her mother, Rosemary, is in a mental institution, one of those housewives who has gone mad in a frighteningly orderly, sort of Republican fashion, still clipping “Canning Do’s and Don’ts” from the paper while shaving her eyebrows off and asking questions of her daughter such as: “Do you think we are turning into our own guardian angels?”
The minor characters in the novel, like Candy the beautician or Gloria, Dorrie’s barmaid friend, are wonderfully drawn and contribute to a rounded picture of the community. McNamer is the kind of writer who digresses freely. She takes us off onto tangents in order to devote whole chapters to such peripheral characters as Gabriel the handyman, a 52-year-old Puerto Rican, who visits the aging Opal Stenurud--"red hair, rhinestone eyeglasses, and vermilion lipstick"--in her apartment above Bledsoe’s drugstore, and sings for the fading queen and her two Pekingese, which looked “like women’s wigs that had sprouted tiny feet and snouts.” The reader is happy to take these side trips.
Something sinister lurks just below the surface here, a tension throughout the book, foreboding ill, and when the violence does erupt, it’s with fierce and unpredictable consequences.
“Rima in the Weeds” isn’t without flaws--more could have been made of Dorrie’s reunion with her father, for instance, and there’s a dangerous waivering in places between the comic and tragic--but these aren’t serious problems. It’s a strong, true voice we hear in this story. McNamer, who has written nonfiction pieces for The New Yorker, has made a fine beginning as a novelist.
Next: Carolyn See reviews “The Man From Raffles” by William Overgard (Simon & Schuster).