What's a girl to do?
She's young, full of energy and dreams, and has her eyes on adventurous horizons. But even in the 2012 world where she is coming of age, her culture is laying out frilly dresses, shiny pumps and lip gloss that have the potential to turn her into little more than a support system for a future husband's ambitions. A lot more doors are open to young women in the post-feminist era but the expectations of gender don't simply disappear.
And Mary Pauline Lowry will have none of it.
Lowry is a thirty-something Austin writer whose new novel, The Earthquake Machine, explores the power of sexism and gender through a teenager's decision to shed her history, her sex, her friends, and almost everything she is in order to find a different existence. The architecture of Lowry's story is subtle, with symbols that are cast upon a stark and unforgiving landscape, which she renders as both inspiring and frightening with her near perfect choice of words.
Rhonda, the narrative's main character, has a troubled epiphany during a river trip down the Rio Grande as it passes through the canyons of Big Bend National Park. Like John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, Rhonda has arrived at a decision to escape the emotional detritus of war. Cole and Rawlins went off on a teenaged Mexican adventure in order to abandon the wreckage of fathers permanently harmed by combat in World War Two. They were also rejecting the limited lives proscribed by West Texas. Rhonda, though, is running from a domestic conflict, which is no less of a war, where she suspects her pharmacist father is doping up her mother and manipulating her into suicide. Rhonda will not have the boundaries of her life drawn by the same cultural mores that are destroying her timid mother.
Crossing over is not easy in the Big Bend. The landscape announces a kind of human insignificance and boldly states that no one has meaningful troubles or the time for introspection. To the people who know the border, the Rio Grande that Rhonda is floating with her friends unifies two cultures, and you don't change much regardless of the riverbank on which you choose to stand. Rhonda feels something different, though, and after a sexual near miss with the group's river guide, she slips into the water and lets it carry her away to Mexico where she has no more goal in mind than to find Jésus, her parents' gardener who taught her perfect Spanish and became her friend. She cannot get far enough away from the tragedy that unfolded at home in Austin.
Lowry's skills are manifest from the opening pages when she establishes tension, but she becomes masterful beyond her years as a storyteller when Rhonda comes up from the river, naked, wet, hungry and born again as a boy. Rhonda encounters a peyote-eating shop owner that helps her cut her hair, provides clothes that hide her gender, and guides Rhonda to assume the name Angel. By the time she leaves the little border town of Milagros, Angel has added the Virgin of Guadalupe to her initial quest to find her friend Jésus. Strangers might see her as a boy or a girl or an androgynous creature wandering in the desert, but that doesn't stop the neophyte Angel from searching for answers to questions she can't even articulate and knows are emotionally and psychologically too profound to ignore.
A lesser writer might be accused of too many contrivances but Lowry peoples the road in front of Angel with characters that inform the soul of the little-girl-lost that she is not alone in her struggle. An expatriated American, who is suspected of dealing in "product," empowers his wife to build and remodel and saw and hammer because these are endeavors that make her happy, and when she is joyous the sex is great and the house is in harmony. A woman with calloused hands can love, too.
After the couple agrees to give Angel a ride to Jésus' hometown, a gang of banditos confronts them on the highway. Angel slips into the jungle with them where she discovers they are "banditas," and the sharp edges of sexuality and gender begin to soften for her. These are women that united to defy expectations and the law. They are raising hell instead of children and, in spite of their rebellious approach to life, find liberty in having refused to cook and clean house for a man. Even in the machismo culture of old Mexico, Angel finds females who've ignored all the gender clues laid out before them by centuries of marriage and custom.
When Angel finally reunites with the beloved Jésus, she is disappointed yet again by a man who refuses to teach her, as he had promised, a special skill. Her memory of the river guide won't leave her alone, either, and Angel seeks a physical release that leads her to the earthquake machine. She shares this double D battery fun with an elderly woman who has been living alone and miserable for decades since her husband died. Genevieve doesn't play the role of the ancient seer, though, and instead slouches sadly among the folds of her own skin and reminds Angel of what awaits a girl who ties her fate too closely to a man.
When the earth finally moves for Angel, it is both orgasmic and tragic. Lowry refuses to give her protagonist an easy time of things and she loses love almost as quickly as it is discovered, but she has learned enough to know that she can take charge. Sex might feel like it is the most important thing in the world to a post-pubescent girl, but as Angel undergoes yet another transformation, she realizes that sex, too, is "its own little death." Nothing is more transitory than beauty and lust.
Lowry may have been writing The Earthquake Machine for the young adult reader, but she has created a story that belongs on bookshelves next to other fine literature. She's as accomplished with her sentences and character development as a young Jane Smiley or Anne Tyler and often as disturbing as Jim Harrison. In the hands of a writer like Mary Pauline Lowry, the human condition can be as brightly illuminated through the plight of a teen as it can through the travails of the Joad family scratching its way westward during the Great Depression. The Earthquake Machine moves Lowry into an elite group of young female writers who know that the feminist movement is about more than equal pay for equal work and that a girl has a right to be a grrrlllll, if she chooses.
And, boy, (or maybe girl,) does she know how to tell a story.
(The Earthquake Machine will be released on Feb. 28, 2012).