In this slim, 144-page book, first-time novelist Amanda Stern explores the love-hate dynamic inherent in both relationships and addiction. It’s not exactly a fresh topic, but she reworks it well with her sharp, staccato style and contemplative tone. Curiously, there are almost no proper names in Haul. Not even Stern’s narrator is named, and her boyfriend is simply called The Alcoholic. Over six years, back and forth between an upstate college and various parts of N.Y.C., these two nameless twentysomethings blunder their way through codependency, aimlessness, and postcollegiate ennui. They love each other, but it’s an angry love. (Though the direction of that anger–and the balance of power–keeps shifting on a chapter-by-chapter basis.)
Threatening suicide, The Alcoholic angrily yells that his girlfriend’s the only one who can fix him, and he practically forces her to promise that she’ll stay with him forever. And while it was his mysterious, romantic melancholy–plus the fact that he’s a musician–that originally swept the narrator off her feet, it doesn’t take long before she’s fuming about his dirty hair and secretly despising him for sitting at a bar and writing bad lyrics on paper napkins. Most often, though, their anger is turned inward–a sure sign that their relationship is doomed (though the couple remains clueless).
At the close of the novel, The Alcoholic has become a 12-stepper, and Stern recites a long, steady string of his AA rhetoric as if it’s poetry. Amazingly, it works, even–or perhaps especially-when she slips in the old saw about depression being anger turned inward. It’s like an audible click, a lightbulb turned on. No matter that it’s one of those awful cliches; you, like The Alcoholic and his girlfriend, are relieved to have the closure. Even though stories about substance abuse, rock music, and depressed people in depressed relationships can be trite, a careful, gifted author like Stern can still make them ring alarmingly true. L.C.