Book Clubbed: Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina
I love books. On my OkCupid profile, I say that books are my dominatrix. Nothing inspires me more, influences my writing, speaks to my soul, verbs my cliche noun, etc. And yet, I never seem to write about books. I’m trying to be better about that. I wrote one review for SF Weekly last week. But I thought, too, that I know many fantastic readers and writers, and why not start our own little series? Why not share the books we love, around a theme, and post them here? So, that’s what I’m gonna try to do. This month’s theme is: the last book that devastated you, hence the perhaps inappropriately violent name of the series: Book Clubbed. Ideally, the reviews will be short, micro-blog style, but longer is fine too. Here’s the first one, on Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.
P.S. If you’d like to participate, please do! Holla at me in a comment or on Facebook. It’d be great to have reviews cross-posted on multiple blogs and have us a right literary hoedown! One can dream, yeah?
P.P.S. The next review will be on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. So, stay tuned.
I saw Dorothy Allison read recently, and while talking about the role of violence in her writing in the post-reading discussion she smiled at the audience widely, winningly, and told us this: “I’ma fuck you up.” She smiled and we laughed and I wondered why, because is that actually funny? She was sincere, I was certain, but when she smiled at us so sweetly, just like her characters always do when they don’t trust the people they’re talking to, we still laughed. Maybe because it’s true; she does fuck you up, beautifully, terribly, magnificently, in a way that sticks with you long after the book is over. Somehow, it’s part of her appeal.
The plot of Bastard out of Carolina, her first book and yet still the one she chose to read from the day I saw her, is simple—it’s about a young girl growing up poor white trash as part of a large and publicly despised family in South Carolina, suffering through and surviving a childhood heaped with physical and sexual abuse. It sounds pretty run-of-the-mill in this age of disaster memoirs, but what sets Allison apart is her honesty, a truthfulness that transcends what we’re supposed to think about poor people, about abuse survivors, and about the people who love them. The characters are often hard to comprehend, hard to love, but sometimes also hard to hate; they are not always noble, or self-sacrificing, or even kind. They are true to their own natures, and that’s not always a pretty sight—it’s just an honest one. And honesty, for all its supposed beauty and simplicity, can also be as ugly as a bruise.
Consider Bone, the titular bastard: I love her so much, for her strength and loyalty to her mother and her sheer stubbornness, but I’m also afraid of her. She’s hard, in the way you have to be to survive sometimes, but she’s only thirteen by the end of the book and she just scares the fuck out of me sometimes. Bone is driven by what we almost can’t see—as readers we witness the physical abuse she suffers from her stepfather, but other than an initial molestation scene there’s little direct description of sexual abuse. It exists in memories and hints, lingering around the edges of the more easily definable physical harm, without words to give it form but tainting everything—her worldview, her interpersonal relationships, her day-to-day actions—just the same.
It comes out in her intense hatred of those who mistreat her: her abusive stepfather, the Woolworth’s manager who belittles her, the doctors who try to help her. But it comes out most clearly in Bone’s masturbation fantasies; they sound like something a dominatrix would whisper in your ear, visions of strength through suffering and pride in pain, and when I suddenly considered that they belonged to an eleven-year-old it shocked me more than almost anything else in the entire book. The only people who offer a solution she can accept are her blood relatives, and because they solve violence with a violence that echoes her own desires their solutions are short-term ones. Bone doesn’t believe anybody can help her, because nobody does; she knows even as a child how people act towards a poor bastard with bruises on her legs, and she wants pity even less than help.
One moment can irrevocably break your life into two pieces, the before and after, and a lot of books are about that. This one is too, but in a deeper way it’s also about the slow relentless grind, of the damage that comes from a life consisting of tiny, mostly terrible moments, one after another with no hope of escape. Bastard out of Carolina is a shattering book because it’s about violence, the violence of abuse and bodily harm but also the ongoing violence of poverty and shame and hunger, of stretched-thin food and frayed clothing and sneering looks and how all of these small pieces add up into something that can eat you alive, if not bodily than spiritually.
Here’s the scene in the movie (directed by Anjelica Huston!) where the abusive step-father gets the shit kicked out of him: