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The Flood Girls
By Richard Fifield
Gallery Books / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Every so often I'll review a book here at CCLaP that serves as a stark reminder about the biggest problem these days with major-press publishing; and that's that it's now the marketing committees who largely determine what books get published, not the editors, which means that most books only get signed if there's a clear and simple way to describe it to the general public, and that when the occasional complex-to-explain novel slips through the cracks, those marketing people typically do a horrendous job of trying to cram that square peg into a round hole against its will.
Take Richard Fifield's The Flood Girls for a great example, which continues the streak I've had for several years of reading only excellent books by writers in the unlikely literary hotbed of Montana. Published by Simon & Schuster, it comes with this cutesy-wutesy cover clearly designed to invoke quirky indie movies like Little Miss Sunshine; and if you don't get the point with that, the dust-jacket copy makes sure to tell us that the characters in this book are "as lovable as they are derisive, and as unforgettable as they are courageous," compares itself to the genteel Hollywood movie A League of Their Own, and ensures us that Fifield's "sardonic, hilarious and heartwarming" story will "leave you laughing through tears," clearly trying to present us with a quirky feel-good tale that will instantly appeal to fans of projects like...well, Little Miss Sunshine, to hit it right on the nose.
The problem, though, is that this book is not lovable and quirky at all; I mean, it has weird little details, sure, as any slowly-paced, character-heavy story set in a small town might, but these weird little details are mostly very dark and destructive in nature, much like if you asked Sam Shepard to write a book full of Lake Wobegon tales, or perhaps if Northern Exposure and Winesburg, Ohio got married and had a horrible little nightmare of a baby, who screeches all night long and uses its razor-sharp little fingernails to constantly gouge at your skin. I mean, let's be clear, that's what makes the novel so great; precisely because it's not some pandering portrait of lovably quirky small-town life, but rather a much more complicated look at rural Montana existence and all the strange, sometimes intolerable ugliness that happens there, even as life for our root-worthy protagonists occasionally have these beautiful little moments where everything suddenly goes right for them. Or at least for a few seconds, before the meth addicts and the drunken lesbian miners and the date-raping volunteer firemen start making existence a daily chore once again.
That's how a book like this should've been marketed, as a challenging and presumption-defying tale of the complex ups and downs in the lives of some very unique, very flawed people in a forgotten little town in Montana; and if this had come out a small press, that's exactly how it would've been marketed, instead of comparing it like Simon & Schuster did to some genteel mainstream movie like A League of Their Own that this novel has absolutely, positively not one single thing in common with, other than that the main characters in this novel just happen to play on an amateur softball team in their spare time. That's a flat-out insult to us as intelligent audience members, and is indicative of why major presses continue to lose more and more money with each passing year, why less and less great authors are willing to work with them, and why all the most exciting developments in literature are all happening at the small-press level these days. I don't want my main message to get lost -- this is definitely a great novel, and you should definitely pick it up -- it's just a real shame that this book's natural audience has to wade through such an immense pile of Lifetime Channel cheese and treacle to get to it.
Out of 10: 9.0