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The Long Haul

Reviewed by Summer Block
Sunday, October 12, 2003


Amanda Stern’s first novel, “The Long Haul,” opens with the Alcoholic, a college musician, setting up to play to an eager gathering of fans that includes his new girlfriend, poised to hear him dedicate a song to her. The audience, the Alcoholic, the girlfriend: Each is held captive by anticipation. The mood of the first scene clings to the rest of this short, tight story: the high expectations and arrested hopes of a youthful relationship. Their love story — its many false starts, poor choices and deeply felt agonies — has all the childishness of young adults but a certain childlike wisdom as well. The girlfriend narrator, who remains nameless, alternates between genuine despair and a punk-pose detachment, encountering adult problems with a teenager’s willful shortsightedness.

This moody novel is about dependency and inaction, but it is told with brave, risky language. Much of the time this pays off with metaphors that are so fresh they are almost jarring; they deliver the shock of unexpected truth. Of a rival, the girlfriend says, “She is nothing, a plastic disposable key chain,” infusing the most banal clutter of modern life with new meaning. Other images are both sweetly innocent and emotionally blunt, as when she says, “My chest opens like a drawer when he passes” or “the snow falls to the ground like a haircut.”

In one virtuoso stunt, Stern plays an ironic riff on AA-speech, rhythmically punching at the vacuity of slogans like “alcohol-ism not alcohol- wasm.” But there are some missteps, too, a few so strange they make you want to groan (“She is . . . carrying not only their child, but also their baggage”) or laugh aloud (“The temperature is falling fast like a dead bird off a tree”). Yet Stern writes with an open heart that is fearless enough to make even failures seem admirable; her willingness to experiment is a lesson for novelists and readers both.

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