Swimming Sweet Arrow by Maureen Gibbon (Little, Brown and Company: New York) $21.95/hardcover
There is much fiction written about rural, blue-collar life. It is an area considered well-suited to exploring the basics of humanity. Journeys of discovery, it would seem, can only be had by those without higher education or a serious job (actually, from a practical standpoint, this is probably true). This type of writing is usually male-based; macho and rugged. Maureen Gibbon, in her debut novel Swimming Sweet Arrow, turns this recent tradition on its head by giving us the female point of view.
Vangie (Evangeline Starr Raybuck), our narrator, tells us of a time in her life, beginning in the mid-'80s, when she is a high-school senior, and ending, for now at least, a few years after graduation. Hers is a life of passion, a hedonistic sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll existence. As the story progresses, Vangie comes into her own (again and again; Gibbon's ovaries-to-the-wall writing style is thoroughly raunchy, taking us into the mind and panties of her young heroine).
Vangie's best friend, June, is equally fond of sex. When we first meet the girls, they are enjoying mutual intercourse in a car with their respective boyfriends, Del and Ray. Where the male versions of this type of story tend to use fairly shallow female characters as plot devices, Gibbon does the same thing with her male characters, giving the male writers their comeuppance. The males are not important in this story except for Vangie's learning and growth:
I liked sitting on the hard kitchen chair and watching him do stuff. He wore jeans but no shirt, and I knew that was for me. I loved to watch his heartbeat make his skin jump, there at the base of his neck, and I loved to kiss the heartbeat place and the hollows his collarbone made. But then, I loved everything about Del -- the riot of his teeth and the smell of his mouth and the color of his balls.
Though Gibbon does resort to some tried and true literary territory, she approaches it in a fresh manner, and it is rarely gratuitous. For example, the girls are both escaping, through sex and substance abuse, dysfunctional childhoods. But Gibbon is able to use this as a springboard for exploring the blurry lines between pure hormonal sex and love, as well as the complicated nature of female sexuality, and the connection between friendship and sexual attraction.
As the story progresses, Vangie goes from comical escapism ("When June and I talked about sex we sometimes used this one phrase: young and dumb and full of come. I didn't feel dumb, but I liked the saying because it rhymed and because it used the word come."), through a variety of life-changing experiences. She goes through many jobs (such as the one at Noecker's Chicken Farm, a job about which Vangie tempts the reader's disbelief, describing it as a fashionable place to work) and many moods.
Another thing with which Gibbon succeeds is a recurring theme regarding how differently the young experience life changes. Every time Vangie goes through a trauma, she expects it to have earth-shattering results, and even physical manifestations: "I walked away without looking back. When I got into my truck, I couldn't believe everything in it looked just the way it had when I left it that afternoon: the box of tissues, the crumpled napkins, my sweater." Vangie has yet to learn that what happens to us personally, no matter how profound, has little or no impact on the world at large.
As with most debut novels, this one is likely based on a collection of autobiographical images. Gibbon writes well and is insightful, bringing to the page feelings instantly recognizable but mostly forgotten in the aging process. It will be interesting to see what she does in subsequent writing when she stretches away from her personal experience.
Editor's note: This story was edited on July 22, 2009 to reflect the correct title of this book, Swimming Sweet Arrow.