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By Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon
Two Dollar Radio
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
A few weeks back, I opened a book review about Jeff Jackson's Mira Corpora, also recently published by Ohio independent press Two Dollar Radio, by writing about how Mr. Jackson handled the suicidal teenage character at the book's center. In that review, I also noted the staggering number of debut novels from independent presses I have read this year that feature suicidal teenage narrators.
Well, Nothing is another one. Our narrator this time around is Ruth, who takes her suffering, and her drinking, very seriously. It's not long before we learn that she attempted suicide back in Minneapolis. Or that she's spent many long hours contemplating it. Or something. Ah, well.
But looking past all that, Nothing has an energy to it that proves infectious. Ruth's in Missoula for college at the University of Montana, but her studies take a backseat to "the parties." The Missoula in the novel apparently has a thriving underground rave scene, where a foreclosed or abandoned house is broken into and then occupied by bands of pill-popping kids who get really high and trash the place. At the party that serves as Nothing's long opening scene, Ruth meets James, who's hitched into town looking for clues about his dead father.
James is straight out of an Edward Abbey novel. He refers to his dad as "pops." He calls the bartender a "beer maid." He calls the toilet "the john." He calls homeless men "hobos." What James's affectations are meant to imply is left up the to reader to decide, but my impression was that we're meant to infer a kind of social critique. James is in Montana to answer essential questions about his identity, but what he's most concerned with is keeping up the appearance of his own authenticity against his preconceived historical notion of the Young Man Gone West. Similarly, Ruth's unflattering narcissism--I mentioned the suicidal ideation, but she's also preoccupied with her own beauty in relation to her friend Bridget, and she's never too hungover to pull together an outfit featuring a couple designers whose names she doesn't fail to drop--could be taken as a kind of running commentary on poseur nihilism.
Still, despite the unlikeable characters and the uncertainty about just what we're supposed to think of them, Ms. Wirth Cauchon keeps the plot chugging along and the pages turning, right up to an explosive and satisfying climax. The climax also serves to strengthen the aforementioned reading of Nothing as a novel that manages simultaneously to embody the attitude of its disaffected protagonists and also hold that attitude up for critique.
Nothing is also preoccupied with babies, and chillingly so. There's a wonderful scene toward the beginning of the novel where Ruth sees an abandoned baby at a party. "It curled and uncurled its fingers and fists, groping at the dry dirt, its spine writhing weakly, its feet pawing at nothing." At the same party a girl--who also happens to be named Ruth--dies, and the abandoned baby and dead Ruth keep appearing on the novel's periphery. "I couldn't say baby," Ruth narrates at one point. "It was like saying Revolution or I love you."
Nothing is most effective when functioning as a kind of youthful Hipster/Occupy update to the Montana fiction of Jim Harrison and Norman Maclean. The common strain in novels by these authors is, first, an undercurrent of violence, and, second, that the Montana landscape hangs over the writing and eventually enters the story to provide a crucial plot twist. Nothing's Montana is burning, so it's no surprise when the fires finally arrive. Ms. Wirth Cauchon has stated in interviews that she was inspired by the Montana wildfires that occurred in the summer of 2007. Incidentally, I was in Missoula that summer. When the fires were at their worst, my wife and I camped at the State Park near Flathead Lake. Really, the smoke wasn't any worse than the smog on an average Chicago Tuesday, but when we woke up in the morning there was a thing layer of ash covering our tent and car. Suffice to say, the situation seemed worth dramatizing.
Out of 10: 8