Crashing America by Katia Noyes
Testing the cosmos to see how far it will let us go before the vise closes is a staple of coming of age novels, as with road movies. The Odyssey, Candide, Huckleberry Finn, and On the Road all feature hero searching for self and place where the adventure is in the perils and puzzles faced by a protagonist who must learn fast to survive. Just as much, these works are about returning home battered and wiser from the journey. In Crashing America, Katia Noyes delivers a fresh contemporary hero quest, creating a 17-year-old delinquent who aspires to nothing less than going out with a bang, but is distracted from her goal by fascination with the very world she hopes will consume her. The heroine, who, perhaps in homage to 1990s lesbian slang, pretentiously calls herself Girl, is 17 and driven by a vision of her own extinction. She is thwarted in this ambition by little things like the smell of the midwestern earth on a summer night as she ponders the sky above, wondering where she belongs.
If there is such a thing as a fertility novel, Noyes has written it. A reversal of Kerouac’s enchantment with the end of land frontier sadness of the California coast, Crashing America charts a course away from the fog-chilled dumpsters and dead-end, drugged out predictability of the once golden state, and specifically its counter-cultural haven, San Francisco. The Mecca of diversity and freedom has become today’s grimy Haight-Ashbury of teen dissolution; the fabled Castro, a mangy runaway’s surest bet for snagging an adult trick who might provide a night in a real bed. Breaking into cars to catch a wink between sprees of scamming for drugs and food is routine.
Girl is a native San Franciscan who has done much and seen more at a young age. Descended from hippies and anti-Vietnam war protesters, she cites their beliefs as mantras from a world that has long since ceased to impress her. “My mom had me the all-organic method right on the couch right there in the living room,” she explains, staring through the window of the only place she recognizes as home. But it’s a home she has not been to since. She is a drifter with no real place of her own. Locked out of her grandfather’s apartment by an untrusting landlady, she negotiates the sex, drugs, and homelessness of self-discarded youth with a world-weariness becoming of a Camus character. In a chapter called “Places of Belonging,” Girl imparts nuggets of jaded wisdom garnered from her short life. “My Mom, I figured she belonged in a place called Suicide. That’s where she most wanted to hang out, and she probably went through life trying to get there.” “Where is my place?” she asks.
The only thing that surprises Girl is that she is incomprehensibly denied the death she dreams will reunite her with the mother who blew her own brains out at a young age. When fate takes her closest girlfriend in an accidental subterranean light rail electrocution, the real shock for Girl is that it wasn’t her. She was the one who was supposed to die. This sobering message launches a road movie of a book, splattering gobs of Twain, Cormac McCarthy, and inverted Kerouac, Pollack-like across the redemptive landscape of a supine heartland. As the possibility of living past her 18th birthday awakens inside, Girl’s new roadmap is soon littered with attempts to connect: “Somehow I had to make my longings into something real. Maybe then, and only then, I wouldn’t have to disappear like my mom.”
The Kerouac reversal is a back-to-the-land, away-from-San Francisco strike towards the midwest. In this conception, California has long ago stopped being a land of promise. For the 17-year-old runaway, it is an older, more populated place. Girl’s undiscovered country is in the opposite direction, the red states where jaded coastal elites fear to tread. What she soon learns is that there are no boundaries to cultural confusion, and identity is fragile everywhere.
There’s plenty of hard lesbian sex along the trail, but it would be a mistake to relegate Crashing America or its author to a lesbian porn ghetto populated by narrower and angrier talents. For every fistful of sex there’s a truckload of yearning, unquenchable teen lust, and restlessly changing targets like the loaded handgun Girl takes from Randa, the woman who draws her into a steamy summer of preparing Nebraska corn for pollination. This backbreaking toil is Girl’s first encounter with honest work, and she sucks it up as if it provided meaning in that venerable Puritan sense. She comes close to accepting that she might just belong here in the flat farmland of endless cornfields and wide skies. But the wanderlust that brought her to Nebraska has other plans. Girl and her gun have appetites larger than Nebraska’s sky.
She embraces a sociopathic career expanding her rap sheet from credit card theft to grand theft auto and armed robbery. There is a moment when she is Bonnie and Clyde, both at once. No one escapes her petty larceny, especially not those she cares about most deeply. Lust drives her to steal cars because that’s how she can reach her next potential savior/victim/mark. Betraying few redeeming qualities, she keeps reeling them in with her chronic certainty about being lost. Of course, there is always her youth. But Girl’s hardheaded ennui trumps this jailbait allure. “I could see why people go after you,” confides her Jesus punk road buddy Jessika. “You give off these twisted looks and wear these torn-up clothes and have these deep, deep-set eyes. People probably think they can scavenge some secret from you.”
The person who has no place is an outsider invested with power and wisdom by those unsure of their own station in life. Perhaps she is onto something, they think, especially the adult women who alternate between offering her a safe haven in imitations of maternal care, and surrendering to her lust, getting roughly taken by Girl in pelvis-crunching scenes resembling the steamiest bodice ripping passages of romance rape sagas. Girl takes her pleasure hard, because she is afraid to give herself up to anyone or anything. It’s slam, bam, and gotta go, because she fears being taken advantage of, losing her freedom to explore other terrains, and other bodies.
In the topsy-turvy dystopian America Girl is crashing, her departures involve exploiting her exploiters through senseless desperate acts of theft, betrayal, and ingratitude. The worse her behavior, the greater the need of her victims to be consumed by the flaming outlaw who has unsettled their toeholds on life.
Crashing America partakes in equal measure of a grim Gus Van Sant America, while sipping from the tawdriest places of William Vollmann. This grittiness, a staple of the punk, Goth, anarchist nihilism has succeeded bohemianisms of yore. Does it perhaps mirror how alienated teens today engage the world?
In traditional hero journeys degradation and danger were defeated by wit and derring-do. Today’s villains are more often the scars left by real or imagined injuries to the self, the battles rage inside the corridors of mental health, and victories take place in the parlance of recovery. While the denizens of today’s avant garde works may well bristle at being lumped into a support group for sociopathic losers, the LeRoy episode does narrow the distance between the likes of Mary Gaitskill on one side, and Oprah, Dr. Phil, and the authors of The Courage to Heal in a vast wasteland of survivors.
How is Crashing America different? Noyes skirts the clichés, deftly avoiding roads to recovery for her difficult young heroine. She favors moments of ecstatic connection to nature over cheap mental health evangelism. Nor are the passages in which Girl communes with the mysteries of nature, of the eco-fanatical stripe. They are descriptive and tight with an awe in which wonder and fear are enmeshed. “Sometimes I got overwhelmed by all those cornstalks and their floppy green leaves. When I looked down at the dirt under my feet, I felt something vicious and excessive in the way the earth pushed up stalk after stalk, over and over again, more and more life. And there I was, helping it continue.”
Girl discovers her place in the world much the same way, as it pushes itself stalk by stalk into her awareness. We can accept this vagabond on her own roguish terms. She may be bent on satisfying her lusts as she cuts a swath through rows of older and younger women smitten by her youth, intensity and toughness. But when she stops to take stock of what’s around her, she is curiously perceptive and innocent. When she strives to transcend her own ferality, reaching out to the ineffable, she is vulnerable, and we want her to be safe and comfortable, and alive.
Crashing America by Katia Noyes