By: Connor Goodwin
Tupelo Hassman writes in her novel Girlchild, "Telling stories is an important Calle skill and Mama gets the star." With her 2012 debut novel, Hassman also gets a star, in a narrative about the life of a girl named Rory Dawn Hendrix.
However, Hassman's storytelling is not to dupe Johnny Law like Mama Hendrix does, Hassman's novel is of growing up on the Calle, a small trailer park somewhere outside of Reno. A sign along the highway reads: "Calle de las Flores - Come Home to the New West." But no one says "de las Flores," like the sign states. To the residents it's simply called the Calle, “its two Spanish L’s asking why on a desert-bleached sign.” In Girlchild, Hassman does a sort of anthropological diagnosis of the Calle:
"The basic subsistence pattern on the Calle is commonly referred to as living paycheck to paycheck. Welfare and disability check s, payroll checks, and the ever rare child-support check are all spent long before they arrive."
Hassman also touches on its economic system of "generalized reciprocity," the Government also known in the novel as "Johnny Law, the Man, or Those Fuckers," marriage, and, of course, alcohol. "Alcohol," the novelist writes, "is often considered the root cause of both the loss and the revival of Calle souls."
The Hendrix family’s relationship with alcohol is no exception. Mama Hendrix takes whatever bar tending shifts she can get at the Truck Stop. When Mama works the graveyard shift she doesn't get home until late and Rory D., her daughter, stays up late watching TV or reading. Rory D. quickly learns how to take care of herself, how to ward off thoughts of the all too real boogeymen that reside not under her bed, but on the Calle. It's on the graveyard shift where "only the most desperate gambler and drunkards hole up," writes Hassman.
It's where Mama learned to say "Fuck you very much" instead of "Thank you very much." When Mama works the earlier shift, she has time to bar hop on the way home before crashing on the couch, where Rory D. will take off Mama's boots and give her Alka-Seltzer in the morning. Such mornings are about the only time Mama Hendrix isn’t so tough, otherwise she never cracks a smile and fiercely protects her daughter from life on the Calle. Rory D. spends many afternoons at the Truck Stop herself, and soon tried her hand at mixing drinks. She gives the recipe to the American Dream cocktail:
Equal parts sweat and heedless disregard
Dash of bitters
Stir. Strain. Garnish
For Hassman, place and family are undeniable, deterministic, and ever-present in Girlchild. Throughout the novel, Rory D. notes similarities between the three generations of women in her family and sees herself her from a well-defined legacy:
"Blood is thicker than tar and all the scrubbing in the world won't stop your good and bad blood flowing forever together through your veins, meeting in a rush at corners, gathering force, and washing you back up on the Calle."
Rory D. sees in herself the realization and manifestations of the women before her. She is grandchild to a lineage of women she describes as "Not family trees, [but] more like weeds really, just as simple, stubborn, and unwanted."
Hassman’s writing is playful, somehow, despite the ugly facts of life on the Calle. But Hassman's play is sharp and cutting. She plays with knives and scissors. She cuts and pastes letters from Grandma, reports on the Hendrix family by a social worker, multiple choice tests, word games, court cases against the "feebleminded," the Girl Scout Handbook. These forms are appropriated and subverted and act as lenses to the Calle. The technique is effective and highly political, not only at their formal level via its appropriation of discursive forms used with respect to poverty, education, and the law, but also at the content level. Hassman borrows both form and language but manipulates content to create a particularly jarring political jab. For example, the multiple-choice answers for a "Reading Comprehension" test are:
A) Science, governments, and your doctor should be trusted.
B) "Comforting her deep into the night" is a euphemism for sneaking candy.
C) The ugliest phrase used in this passage is "female."
D) Bad things really do come in threes.
Though Rory D. was able to leave the Calle, the Calle hasn't left her. Place and blood are “thicker than tar.” When you learn the Calle, you learn to grow up quick and you learn the hardness of the world. That’s not all you get from Rory D. though, she isn’t just a hardened tough girl like Mama Hendrix may have been. Rory D. is very clever, perhaps because she was able to leave. Through Rory D., Hassman is attempting to upend certain political forms and forces in an exciting and interesting way. I highly recommend Girlchild for its ability to treat the weightiness of poverty and domestic abuse with a sharp sense of wit and playfulness, without losing any of its seriousness.