‘Normal People Don’t Live Like This’ by Dylan Landis

Normal People Don’t

Live Like This

Dylan Landis

Persea: 182 pp., $15 paper

The power of a girl -- so large, so threatening that civilizations build their religions and bureaucracies, their rules and regulations, their apples and snakes and burkas around it. Creating a girl on paper, a mere character, could it be anything like raising one? Knowing one? Having once been one? No. No. No.

Dylan Landis has a gift for creating characters. Her first book of fiction, “Normal People Don’t Live Like This,” revolves around Leah Levinson, a teenage girl in 1970s Manhattan, and it is in her character details that the writing comes to life. Of Helen, Leah’s anorexic mother, she writes, “Toast cooled before her.” Of Angeline Yost, the school slut: “The Gospel of Angeline Yost is graven into desks with housekeys and the blood of Bics; it is written in the glances of girls -- low arcs of knowing that span the hallways and ping off the metal lockers.” Of the women in the welfare building where Leah’s mother rents a secret room: “The women looked at her with curbstone eyes.”

This is nothing; this is cocktails for Landis, these are not even protagonists. Leah is the girl things happen to. She’s the one worth worrying about. She’s the one with the heart that “sprouted like a seed” when it looked as if another girl, Rainey, might actually be her friend; she’s the one who knows “that a person’s molecules can fly apart like an exploding galaxy and disappear. It doesn’t take much.”

Any book that begins with 13-year-old girls -- whether Rainey, slinging her unquenchable sexuality and fury, or Leah, obsessive compulsive child of an obsessive compulsive mother, trying to break through that glass ceiling to see a little sky -- is going to feel dangerous. Forget about smoking guns. Thirteen-year-old girls are bound to go off.

So the writer has to work extra hard. And we must not see her effort to contain that energy, that nuclear reactor between covers. The Brontë sisters, Gustave Flaubert, Jane Austen -- their young women grew up with two paths: spinster or head of household, caged with or without dignity. But Leah could destroy herself in so many different ways. You hold your breath. What’ll it be?

Miscarriage or abortion? Addiction? Prison? Prostitution by any other name? The adults are no help. Her father dies, her mother keeps a very clean house. The older men are predatory, especially when, as in Rainey’s case, there are breasts involved. The women are tired, overworked. How can she run this gamut -- mean girls, exams, emotions, the thrill of having secrets and breaking rules?

Leah is a female Holden Caulfield. Why? Because you feel potential bursting in her, the potential to help other people, to love someone, to experience art and beauty in brave new ways. Because she’s caught in the maze of culture, yes, like a rat. She doesn’t want the phony cheese. She just wants to unfold.

Other characters burst into bloom around her: even her mother opens up and lives a little, gets a room of her own. Her friend Pansy gets married and moves to Venice, Calif. Leah meets someone. We hold our breath.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, love can save you. But is he good enough for her? Will she be crushed? I don’t think so. She’s just a character, mind you, but her circulation is good: art, buildings, science, desire flow in, are digested, flow out as thoughts and ideas and ways to be in the world, like photosynthesis in full swing.

As for Landis, watch her very carefully. Once you can create characters like Leah (or Angeline, Rainey and Helen), there’s no stopping you.

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.