April 2006

Christine Newgard

fiction

Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin

Ever been in a situation, perhaps it was a bridal shower, maybe a Thanksgiving dinner, where you get stuck next to That Guy who likes to corner innocent bystanders and suck up all their time only to talk incessantly about his friends you've never met, or his nonsensical dream last night, or his endless review of eye-gougingly boring errands? If so, multiply that experience by 336 pages and you've got Gail Godwin's Queen of the Underworld.

Set in a 1950s Miami with a bitingly proud and ambitious, yet obsessively self-doubting, 22-year-old Lois Lane-wannabe protagonist, who doubles as a married man's mistress, it's a marvel the author couldn't come up with a plot. Oh, the places the story could go! But didn't.

Instead, Queen of the Underworld comprises a single week in Emma Gant's life as she starts her first job out of college as a newspaper reporter at the Miami Star. During a week packed with all the regular first-job jitters and insecurities, she stays at a hotel full of Cuban exiles where she meets a bunch of Latino silhouettes posing as characters, in addition to the colorful cast at the newspaper, and the media-dubbed "Queen of the Underworld" ex-madam, with whom the author takes great pains to draw some heavy-handed parallels with Emma. It's too bad Godwin spends literally the entire novel introducing us to all of these potentially interesting people and leaves no time for them to actually do anything interesting. In place of action, we get repetitive interior dialogue y muchas snippets of Spanish conversation, apparently only to show that the author took SPN 301: "'It will be nothing fancy, baguettes from a bakery, jugo de naranja, huevos -- hard-boiled -- perhaps some jamón.' She swallowed a sip of her coffee and grimaced. 'The important item is the cafecito, good, strong Cuban coffee, not this agua sucia, like dirty water.'"

Ok, ok, enough code switching, I get it -- these people speak Spanish. Sheesh. Why not show how Latino they are by only portraying them dancing salsa, discussing Spanish literature and talking about Cuban food -- oh wait...

But despite her annoying writing tics, Godwin does create a great character through Emma, who's realistic, feisty, and flawed. Her unabashed superiority complex makes her both compelling to sympathize with and grating to listen to, and her experience as the little fish in the big pond is something nearly everyone can connect with.

Unfortunately, Queen of the Underworld is one of those regrettable books that may have accomplished too well what it set out to do. It authentically portrays the whiplash of uncertainty upon entering the working world after college, and meticulously chronicles the emotional roller coaster of the transition. The problem, however, is that the first week on any job is incredibly boring, especially if it's a writing position. Let's face it, there's a reason an action movie has never starred a writer (unless you count All the President's Men -- but that's far from typical, and few are the scenes showing them actually writing). Here's an example of what happens when you base a (non) plot on a typical writer's job:

I rolled a sheet of copy paper into Darcy's typewriter.
Just start writing.
I'd had no problem tossing off that lead for my woman weather forecaster... 'When it rains, Martha Seawell looks out the window and says stoically: "Hmm... low pressure area."

If that wasn't heart-pounding enough, just wait for the chapters where Emma reads and thinks about newspaper articles she didn't write -- yeehaw!

This is not to say that Emma's experience isn't exactly what every writer faces every day -- it's just boring. As are Emma's diary entries, letters, and mental lists that review the tedious tasks of the day we just read about. For example: "I played with 'Emma's story so far' awhile longer and then, rather than counting sheep, began making a mental list of all the people I had met since boarding the train last Saturday." The following page and a half do just that, with "a second column for these 'once-removed' people I had merely brushed against, but hadn't actually met." Good Lord, I think the woman just inserted her own Cliff's Note character analysis into the book. Give the reader some credit, Gail.

My theory about Queen of the Underworld is that the author had one of those typical, but important transitions from college to the working world and decided that; even though her tale had no plot whatsoever; because the era and locale were globally significant, that her story would be as well. Too bad a meandering introduction of the cast a novel does not make.

Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin
Random House
ISBN: 0345483189
352 Pages