The Long Haul is actually a collection of stories concerning the relationship of the unnamed narrator (a girl in her twenties) and her musician lover, simply referred to throughout as the Alcoholic.
It is a relationship that somehow lasts six years. The reader is made aware very early on that the Alcoholic is a self-centered jerk who throws ‘I love you’s’ around with abandon, but the girl’s ability to see the moron for what he is becomes blurred by her own insecurities that require treatment by a therapist called…you guessed it, the Therapist. Though the girl is obsessed with the divinely handsome Alcoholic, her thoughts of love and dreams of the future drift to the ugly therapist. This is important as this isn’t a ‘love is blind’ scenario, but rather a story about being addicted to people; in fact, it is about addiction and dependence full stop: the girl’s early dependence on the Therapist, and the Alcoholic’s drink habit which is cured only by relying on another crutch. When the girl confronts her ‘addiction,’ she must go through withdrawal as painful as that of any junkie.
The reader won’t have much sympathy for the two protagonists, especially the masterfully portrayed Alcoholic, though one eventually warms to the girl. On the other hand they will find clever, mini, self-contained dramas that work supremely well: their first meeting, a housebreaking, a rape, the saving of a child’s life, and the tale of a strange Goth couple. The relationship may have been doomed, but it had its moments.
I have now read this book twice in as many months, trying to put a finger on exactly why I like it so much. The prose is wonderfully precise and clean, yet spot-on observations clash against odd metaphors or similes: ‘His skin is ceramic, smooth, like blown glass’; “The temperature is falling fast like a dead bird off a tree.” Other times the sentences read like song lyrics: “The penny jar is empty, no more quarters in the couch, under the bed. The vacuum bag is drained, going through all my pockets, pants I’ve never worn. Dimes in the floorboard gouged out by a knife.” (Yikes, it could be Jonathan King’s Everyone’s Gone To The Moon!)
Stern used to be a scriptwriter and was once earmarked as a comedian, and both those experiences can be observed in the writing; time and timing is of the essence and that explains the lack of surplus. It also helps to explain a segment like ‘Gravity of a Gray World,’ which kicks off light and comic, turns dark, and ends with a devastatingly unfunny punch line: ‘It’s funny how sometimes you think you want to know something about a girl, but it’s not that girl you learn about.’
Stern has honed the descriptions of her protagonists, kept her style raw, gritty and free from pretension; she refrains from moralizing, and in the end produces an honest book. Maybe that is why I like it so much: it is honest.
Note: There is a rather good article on Amanda Stern, her writing method and why she picked Soft Skull Press, in The Practical Writer magazine by Joanna Smith Rakoff, accessible through Stern’s website www.amandastern.com – (follow link to Press, then interviews) – which also sports her very polite rejection letters.
About Soft Skull Press: You might know their name from having published J.H. Hatfield’s biography of George W., Fortunate Son, in which the frat boy from hell is said to have once been arrested for possession of Columbian marching powder. Soft Skull is a Brooklyn-based press that has its roots in the indie press-zine world. One of TBR’s favorite periodicals, Willamette Week from Portland, Oregon, writes: “Thoughtful, critical, committed to expounding an openly manifold perspective toward all modern life, . . . Soft Skull endorse[s] a new, enlightened way of looking at society. Harsh politics and inspired fiction aside, in a nation that starves for real reality, Soft Skull Press has solidly grounded, daringly provocative food for the brain. http://www.softskull.com for more info.