Girls in Trouble

By Douglas Light


University of Massachusetts Press
October 2011

Reviewed by Peter Fontaine


Douglas Light's second book and debut collection of short fiction, Girls in Trouble, delivers immediately and consistently on the promise of its title. The first story, "Echo Sounder," begins so:

Mares's father wakes her in the aching hours before dawn. Summer, and all is stagnant, unmoving, save the crickets who call through her open window, uneasily in their warm night's cadence. "I have something to show you," her father says, scooping Mares in his arms.

Mares is half asleep, doesn't understand what her father wants. He's been gone some time, a month or more. He is often gone for weeks on end. "When did you get home?" Mares asks, her voice filled with sand and dreams. Her father struggles to stand with her in his arms. She's eleven years old. "My, you're getting big," he whispers. "Soon the boys will be trying this on you," he says. "A word of advice: Don't let them."

Her father smells of cloves and mothballs, like he's been pulled from storage after a long, long season. He's never come into her room, never lifted her in his arms. Mares is hard-pressed to recall when he's ever touched her.

This is the way great short fiction begins: intently and with the promise of danger. The reader, like Mares, is awakened to a confusing situation. We are carried along with Mares and we are told only what is absolutely essential in the moment. Her father operates sinisterly, stealing her out of bed at night, alluding to her burgeoning adolescence, and the future threat of boys and their sexuality. Even though he has come under cover of darkness, and even though he manhandles her, Mares's thoughts are of the distance he's kept, both temporal and physically, and this distance also feels like a threat juxtaposed to this sudden intimacy of space and touch.

One also appreciates the craftsman who selected the sequence of the stories here. Mares's father is not the only man who travels extensively in these stories. The narrator of "Matters of Breeding," is a globe trotter who marries and staves off having children as long as he can. Whether he's a drug runner, a government operative, or just a hustler is never defined, but what is certain is that he is never home to be with the woman who adores him. The line above, "He's been gone some time, a month or more," echoes the title of the last story in the collection, "Three Days. A Month. More." Like the young sisters in that story, Mares has periods of time where she must fend for herself to the indifference of the adults around her. Mares has a mother, a woman who feels abandoned and betrayed by her husband, and with her daughter in tow she picks up and, after destroying most of the dishware, starts driving. Mares's mother is not the only wife and mother to be harmed by the absence or indifference of a man, as will be seen in the stories "Gatlinburg," "Zebra," "Hit-and-Run," and "Prenuptial." A dozen stories in all are expertly foreshadowed in this introductory piece showcasing unease and threat.

The stories alternate between a conventional twenty page size and flash fiction, but regardless of the length they all have the same impact, like a slap across the face leaving you startled and affronted. For instance, "Zebra" starts out with Kinina at a funeral surrounded by white people, and then ushers her immediately to the service after, where we learn:

The dead woman threw forks at Kinina while she slept. The dead woman broke Kinina's collarbone in a fit of rage and whipped her with the frayed power cord from a broken vacuum cleaner, causing the scars.

The dead woman was her mother.

Too often contemporary fiction relies on the tension produced by anxiety and malaise. Conflict in fiction rarely feels immediate and dangerous, yet Girls in Trouble expertly presents both the extreme and the mundane with those exact feelings equally. At the beginning of "Three Days. A Month. More." we see Maria (13) and Lena (11) alone:

"Listen," Maria says to Lena. "Mama's gone. What do you want?"

They sleep on the bare mattress, scratching through the night. In the front room, the TV blares: "I wish the world would stop." Three days, a month, more. Often Lena dreams they are comfortable.

The landlord comes by. "I'm not all that bad," he says to them. The door barely open, Maria eyes him through the crack. "When is your mother home?" he asks.

I hesitate to use the term "political fiction," because it often implies an agenda, a moral high ground upon which the author trumpets righteously. Instead, these stories slap us in the face to focus our critical faculties in a very visceral way upon gender politics, relationships and intimacy, and the degrees of abuse and neglect we all endure. Although men often fill the role of primary abuser, as in "Echo Sounder," "Zebra," "Orphans," and "Three Days. A Month. More," they are just as often the abused, as in "Hit-and-Run," "Separate," and "Prenuptial." Children living in abject poverty or young women who lose themselves in sexual oblivion are familiar news stories and op-ed pieces, but in Light's hands they take on a vibrancy that reminds us of how disturbing and significant these people and their suffering are. With this collection you will enjoy engrossing fiction tightly executed, but you will also get back in touch with your own humanity, further plumbing your own capacity for compassion and reflection.