Wednesday
Feb032016

Into the Valley

By Ruth Galm


 

Soho Press
August 2015
978-1616955090


Reviewed by Ilana Masad


 

Despite this neat little Los Angeles Times roundup, it's hard to find a "women's version" of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. That's perfectly fine; On the Road gave voice to a generation's desire to escape the confines of suburban life and the academic ivory tower and truly experience the world. Its protagonist is male and very much approaches life from the perspective of a privileged white man who could ask for money from home. While I'm not a big fan of Mr. Kerouac's writing and his oftentimes sexist (yes, of its time, but still sexist) approach to his various female characters, I'm also able to appreciate the impact it's had on many readers, no matter their gender.

Ruth Galm's Into the Valley is a kind of answer to On the Road, although it may not have been intended as such. Into the Valley takes place in 1967, and its constant movement and the need to escape are hampered by the fact that its protagonist is a woman who experiences a vastly different reality than Kerouac's narrator, Sal.

B. is a thirty-year-old woman who goes by her initial because "she'd never felt like a Beverly, never known exactly what a Beverly would want to do." This information is given to the reader in a series of vignettes that constitute the prologue. The passages are marked with Roman numerals rather than the Arabic numbers used later on as chapter dividers, and when read again after finishing the book, their sporadic details seem to be a roadmap to the book's plot, right from the opening line: "She took the forged check to the bank and cashed it." The following are quotes from those various sections of the prologue that continue that map:

The first bank B. would never forget because . . . of the first flush of expansive coolness.

Her last conversation with her mother had been exactly like the others.

The irony was that the carsickness had nothing to do with actually being in one.

The valley was because of the man on the bus.

What she had not thought through were the logistics.

Later it was all spoiled.

Because you're a good girl, they'll like you . . . you're a good, classy girl and that won't ever change.

All of this vague information comes before the actual plot begins, but it gives us glimpses, such as B. buying a blue Cadillac in i, a man called Daughtry in viii, and the carsickness that follows B. around, mostly when she isn't inside a car.

This is a most intriguing hook: B.'s carsickness and its lack of a relation to the feeling of motion. Later we learn that B. used to feel it on the bus in San Francisco, so the motion sickness could be true to some extent—but only when she isn't in control of the vehicle. Inside her own car, bought with her own money, though not quite legally obtained, she almost immediately feels better. To be clear, Galm isn't so heavy-handed; the issue of control only seems obvious when written down here.

As B. heads towards "the valley," the Central Valley in California that dominates a large swath of the state, her only intention is to get away from "the city," San Francisco. There she worked as a secretary, one of many other women. She isn't married, though she's had relationships or at least sexual encounters with men, and her mother increasingly hints that she's a lesbian. But B. doesn't seem to be much of anything when it comes to sexuality—it is helpful to her that men find her attractive and that women find her beautiful and classy. B. uses these qualities to her advantage, but she isn't fully conscious that she's using them, since they are simply part of who she is and how she was raised to be.

Indeed, how she was raised figures heavily into B.'s opinions of 1967 California. She seems overwhelmed by the dichotomy between her mother's, and now her own, notions of propriety, education, and family, and the people surrounding her in San Francisco's Summer of Love, where women forgo bras, grow their hair out, keep their nails "natural," and wear sandals instead of heels. 

It's never made clear by Galm what triggers B.'s carsickness—her discomfort, her nausea, her sense of detachment from the world around her—but it seems, throughout the narrative, that B. has a love/hate relationship with the changing world. On the one hand, she sees a man named Daughtry, sleeps with him, and then exploits him for his false checks. She begins to cash the checks up and down the valley at small banks where she's soothed by the predictability of the coiffed female tellers who reassure her that the world her mother taught her to live in still exists. On the other hand, as she continues driving and driving, B. stops showering, doesn't change her clothes, and becomes more and more like the hippies she apparently hates. When she meets and picks up a young hitchhiker, a girl who thinks at first that B. is a lesbian trying to seduce her, B. is fascinated by the girl's hairy legs, lack of stockings, see-through shirt, and no bra. This girl is beautifully ironic: she apparently embraces her generation's rebellion, but talks about her boyfriend who's sleeping around and increasingly lets loose information about their families back in Southern California. Unlike B., this girl yearns to marry her boyfriend and have a traditional family, while B., who thinks she should yearn for it, that maybe it will stop the carsickness, simply doesn't.

Besides this encounter with the hitchhiker, and one evening with a professor with whom she gets drunk and who maybe (or maybe doesn't) roofie her drink, B. barely interacts with people. She rarely eats. She forgets entirely about the period she had at the beginning of her journey and finds, post-coitus, a tampon stuck deep inside her, bloated and difficult to extract. This unawareness of her body, thinning and smelling and becoming less appealing to others as time goes by, makes B. seem to exist in an ethereal space. She is sustained by driving and by the checks—she doesn't need or want the money she cashes with them, but committing a crime while looking like the lady her mother wants her to be is enthralling and helps to soothe the carsickness.

The transition from needing and desiring the checks to B.'s sudden ability to free herself from them after another encounter with Daughtry, which involves her robbing a bank, is rather startling, and it brings about an ending that is as puzzling to the reader as it is probably freeing for both Galm and B. herself.

Despite what might be this exasperating ending to some, this novel in which a woman drives around aimlessly stays tense, interesting, engaging, and compelling. A feat indeed. Galm makes us care about B. a great deal even though we barely know her, even if we may want to reach into the book and shake her for her decisions. In building this sense of connection—which is felt by a daughter of B.'s generation—Galm has achieved true success with her debut novel.