'Follow Me: A Novel' by Joanna Scott

Follow Me

A Novel

Joanna Scott

Little, Brown: 424 pp., $24.99

America is the home of self-invention. Write yourself another story, move to a different town, leave the past behind, start anew. So much of our literature explores the upside and the downside of this myth, none more memorably than Theodore Dreiser's work. In "An American Tragedy" (based on the trial and execution of Chester Gillette in 1908), young Clyde's desire for a better life leads him from town to town, misfortune to misfortune, culminating in murder. "Sister Carrie" is also the story of young Carrie Meeber's escape from her rural roots into the arms of Charles Drouet and George Hurstwood, her fall from innocence and her interrupted identity. So many of these stories end badly for their protagonists, their plots an endless hall of mirrors, you'd think there was a moral lurking behind every word.

"Follow Me" is the story of Sally Werner, wicked Sally Werner, poor Sally Werner, who, all of 16, gets pregnant after a motorcycle ride (and not altogether consensual sex) with her 23-year-old cousin Daniel, damaged in the war. The year is 1946 and Sally Werner (you repeat the name again and again as you read, like a refrain) leaves the baby on her parents' kitchen table and runs into the woods, anywhere, away. Sally Werner's parents are German immigrants and it doesn't take much to be labeled a bad seed for life in that family. (Redemption? Forgettaboutit.)

She lands on her feet with a kind family that has no shortage of problems but is willing to help poor Sally. Her past catches up with her after a few years, and before you can say Judgment Day, Sally has robbed her benefactor of half his life savings and boarded a bus for an imaginary town, an imaginary future.

From place to place

"Follow Me" is set in the industrial towns of Pennsylvania, along the Tuskee River. There is a feeling of dread, the myriad unhappinesses of the 1950s, the warped American Dream, the destruction of the countryside, particularly in Pennsylvania, with its dark, dense, helpless foliage, witchy bad luck and grimy factories. The narrator, Sally's granddaughter, tells the legend of the Tuskawali, newt-like people who live in the river and wreak havoc with the fates of men.

Sally changes her name in this and each successive incarnation: Werner, Angle, Mole, Bliss. Sally gets off the bus in the Amity environs, gets a job and falls in love with a boy named Mole. They drive fast in Mole's brother's car, anywhere they can go, and one day they are hit by the local scion, the cream cheese prince, Benny Patterson. Mole is killed and Sally -- yes she does -- sleeps with Benny. Then she runs away, to another town, Tuskee, sets up a life, makes a good friend named Penelope and has Benny Patterson's baby, a daughter she names Penelope Mole, our narrator's mother.

Damned if Benny doesn't come and find her, four years later, when she finally has a life she can call her own, a life steady enough that she sends money back to her family for the son she left behind.

What happens to him? That is the tragic secret of the novel. Lies are told, mistakes are made, lives are built on those lies and mistakes. Take my word for it: A story doesn't get any more tragic than this. "Follow Me" begins with the narrator, named Sally after her grandmother, telling the story of the day her father jumped from the pedestrian bridge into the Tuskee River. And how he survived. And why he jumped.

Cruel, cruel fate

Novels that remind us how little we control our own fate seem to fly in the face of the American Dream: the great meritocracy, one man one vote, manifest destiny. From the moment Sally Werner starts running, "running, running," her life is a series of misunderstandings, accidents and bad decisions based on self-hatred and fear: "How many lives start over this way, by putting one foot in front of the other?" Each new self-invention is a little more disorienting, a lot more lonely. It's as if God, the little newt-like Tuskawali or somebody wants to punish Sally Werner. All she can do, in the end, is construct a story she can believe that explains what happened to the son she abandoned. That story is her religion. She follows it to perdition.

Joanna Scott has one of those imaginations that recasts details in her own image. A reader remembers, for example, the colors, the rocks in her novel "Tourmaline," the texture of her landscapes and the determination of her characters. You feel the strong powers of observation and imagination at work in her writing, crashing and working against each other: This is true, this can't be true; how could that happen? Of course that's what happened. You feel forces bigger than us swirling around her plots, especially this one, but you don't know what to call them. You think it must be her story, the story of her ancestors, but then you remember she's an accomplished fiction writer. She knows how to ride and break a good, feisty story. After it's broken, and the pieces lay all around, you realize that you could not, in a million years, ever reconstruct it, even though, in so many ways, it has become your story too.

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.