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Love hurts – ‘Heartbreaker’

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Considering the wealth of recent works that marry genre conventions with literary fiction, you might think that there’s little left in the way of potential surprises. No matter how rich the vein might be – and it has proven to be rich indeed – you’d imagine that it would be difficult to mine something new and fresh from that lode.

And then you read something like Claudia Dey’s “Heartbreaker” (Random House, $26) and realize that there are creative powerhouses out there continuing to strike literary gold. It’s a novel about coming of age and motherhood and sexual politics wrapped in a sci-fi dressing of alternate history and cult dynamics. It is powerful and thought-provoking and unrelentingly weird – both in the tale and in the telling.

It shines.

In an unfamiliar 1985, we are introduced to an unnamed settlement known simply as “the territory.” In this place, an isolated outpost somewhere in the northern United States, people are bound to one another by their separation from the rest of the world. From its beginnings as an outsider cult founded by a charismatic leader, the territory has become a realm all its own – one that once financed itself via mining, but now gets by thanks to the exportation of an altogether more unsettling (and ever-renewable) resource.

The people follow the rules set forth by their long-gone leader. They wear track suits and listen to hair metal like Whitesnake and Nazareth and watch trashy television soaps. The men are given status through nicknames and the women are expected to be subordinate and subservient. They are completely and utterly bound by custom.

“Heartbreaker” is the story of Billie Jean Fontaine, a stranger who somehow made her way into the territory. Despite a mysterious past and an unwillingness to be forthcoming about that past, Billie Jean works her way into the fabric of the community. Despite the suspicions surrounding her, she winds up wed to The Heavy, one of the more eccentric and tragic residents of the territory.

But one day, Billie Jean walks out the front door, coatless and barefoot. She climbs into The Heavy’s truck and drives away without a word. She’s gone.

It’s Billie Jean’s story, but she doesn’t tell it. The tale instead unfolds in triptych. First, we hear from Pony Darlene, the teenaged daughter of Billie Jean and The Heavy. Pony adores her mother, but she doesn’t understand Billie Jean any more than her neighbors do. As she struggles to come to terms with her mother’s flight, we also get a glimpse into what it means to come of age in such a twisted, weird place.

Next, we hear from Gena Rowlands … the family dog. Dogs are ubiquitous in the territory, but the rules state that they should never be given names. Billie Jean flouted that convention like so many others by naming the dog. In many ways, Gena is Billie Jean’s sole confidant; she is also a stone killer unafraid to do anything to protect the woman she has come to love so fiercely.

And finally, we hear from Supernatural, a teenage boy who is one of the youngest ever to receive an official nickname. Supernatural is aloof and cool, admired by his peers and even many of the adults in the territory. But he has plenty of secrets of his own; the ties that bind him and his family to Billie Jean, Pony and The Heavy are intricate and elaborate while still remaining mostly beneath the surface.

And permeating all of it is the grisly foundation of the territory itself, as well as the unknown nature of the world outside – a world that few within the territory truly understand.

“Heartbreaker” is a stunning, compelling piece of work, a fully-formed world with its own unsettling customs and strange rules. The territory is the kind of literary realm that writers spend their whole lives trying to create, a place that – despite its weirdness – feels completely realized and utterly real. The entire book is packed with exquisite detail, every little throwaway reference a piece of a meticulously assembled puzzle.

There are subtle flavors throughout. Dey gives us a hint of cultish sexual dynamics here, a whiff of technological dystopia there, all of it amplified by an alternative past rife with references to that very specific time and place.

All this through not one, not two, but three beautifully realized narrative perspectives. The three-pronged approach to the storytelling is mesmeric, allowing Dey to plumb the depths of the tale with an unconventional fullness. Creating one compelling narrator is difficult enough – creating three indicates a flat-out massive talent.

“Heartbreaker” is unlike any other book you’re likely to read this year. It is strange and smart in the best possible ways, a triumph of the weird that commingles the poignant and the perverse. It’s a masterful work from the pen of a magnificent writer.

Last modified on Wednesday, 03 October 2018 13:42

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