The Short Version: It’s the Village in the ’70s and Rainey Royal is trying to figure out who she is. We meet her first at age 14 in her big house on West 10th St, her father an oblivious jazz musician and his best friend eyeing her with lecherous intent. She’s brash, newly sexy, and an old-school wild child – but even those have to grow up at some point.
The Review: Sometimes you read the right book at the right time, in the right place. Sometimes that turns into a marvelous, transcendent experience – and other times, it just feels really nice. It is no slight to Dylan Landis’ wonderful first novel that it falls into the latter category. The time and place, of course, are September in Manhattan – and if you live here, you’ll know why.
There’s something about the days suddenly getting shorter, the masses of children all tucking back into the confines of school, the crispness to the air – and this collection feels like it catches all of those things underneath its words and its (beautiful) covers. Fitzgerald said that life starts all over again at this time of year and, well, novels like this feel like they help.
Rainey Royal, the main character of this novel – which almost wants to be called a collection, as each chapter is really just a short story from Rainey’s life, jumping forward sometimes years at a time without much of a concrete narrative through-line – is a riveting figure. She’s fierce, damaged, unprepared for the realities of her newly-found sexual potency while also deploying it with no mercy, and overall she ends up as a sort of mean girl before there were Mean Girls. Except you care about her. She and her best friend Tina might do strange and vaguely awful things (my favorite being when they pull off a home invasion of a young artsy couple, just on a lark) but the reader cares about her well-being, wishes that something would go right for her. Maybe, like her teachers, the reader is just using the context of her family life (mother fled to an ashram, father a little distant and semi-famous) to write off otherwise unpardonable offenses, but that’s too easy a way out. She’s as flawed and human as anyone who might be reading the book and it’s that that comes through and brings the reader and the character together.
The other characters are quite vivid, too – drawn from ’70s Central Casting but given a vibrancy of life by Ms. Landis’ writing that makes them so much more. There’s Gordy with the stringy nearly-white hair, the creepy best friend of Howard (Rainey’s dad) who might have (in, apparently, one of the stories of Ms. Landis’ first short story collection – which I am now rushing to procure) raped young Rainey in the park. Tina, Rainey’s best friend, has a marvelously complex backstory that comes out finally in one of the novel’s best chapters. Even Leah, who was apparently the ‘main’ character in Landis’ first collection, gets some time in the spotlight when she ends up in the thrall of both Rainey and another Rainey-esque wild child and growing so much in the process.
But it might be Howard, Rainey’s father, who is the most intriguing of the non-titular characters – and he’s rather horrifying, actually. A semi-famous jazz musician (famous in that New York way, you might say – no one else might care, but those who are here care a lot), he doesn’t really seem to know what to do with his daughter. His wife / her mother left them for an ashram in Colorado (because of course she did) – but she’d hopped between her husband and Gordy’s beds, proving to be not the best influence for a child. Still, she might have at least kept Rainey safe from Gordy or from the others who swan through the house. A young coronet player rapes Rainey in her own bed in one scene and Howard responds that there’s no way he could be a criminal, because of how talented he is – he must’ve just gotten confused by the signals Rainey was putting out. It is a horrifying sequence, seeing a father speak like that to his daughter, but it’s perhaps all the more horrifying for knowing that that shit still happens today. The ’70s aren’t so far away after all.
Rating: 5 out of 5. For all the wildness of the story and the characters, there is a beautiful lightness to things in this book. Seeing pieces from one chapter track through several chapters later (Saint Catherine of Bologna, the cape, the teeth-licking trick, the parrot-boyfriend, and so many others) makes the reader feel like they’re dropping in on old friends again and again, catching moments with them as we can – because this is a busy city. Rainey grows up (in her own way) over the ten-or-so years that this book spans, but we don’t get to see the entire process. Instead, we experience just these stories, which might not even be the most momentous (although many are, or at least tie into momentous occasions) but are the stories that, if the reader were to go out and grab a drink to catch up with Rainey, she might tell us. Think about the stories you might tell, if you saw a friend maybe every six months or so – and then you’ll see just how marvelous a novel this really is.