The notion that grit-lit is a gentlemen’s club is no fallacy.
Or wasn’t. That page turned in early January with the publication of debut novelist Mesha Maren’s “Sugar Run” (Algonquin).
A subgenre of Southern Gothic, grit-lit is raw and real and populated largely by male writers.
Current artisans, including Michael Farris Smith, Wiley Cash, David Joy and Ron Rash, craft characters who, in the case of men, operate under moral codes of their own or, in the case of women, are left morally bankrupt after a lifetime of abuse.
The settings of these lifetimes are not unexpected: Trailer parks, brothels, casinos, pawn shops, and anything, really, that feels like the abandonment of dreams is where you’ll find these men and women.
That sign above the gates of hell in Dante’s “Inferno?” That sign was made for stories such as these.
Here, characters live lives that are bleak and desperate. In novel after novel, these men and women attempt to claw life from generations of bad decisions, abuse, poverty, fatalism and despair.
They rarely succeed.
In the end, they search for redemption. They more rarely find that. And when they do, it is never the type of absolution you and I would pray for.
Enter into this fray Maren, a novelist who didn’t get the memo that this particular brand of misery and moral ambiguity is for boys only.
Which is a grand thing, because if she had, we wouldn’t have this great and gritty novel — and proof that grit-lit isn’t a product of chromosomes, but of a true moral compass.
In 2015, Maren won the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and so it is little surprise that “Sugar Run” is a homecoming story.
Jodi McCarty spent 18 years in prison for murdering her girlfriend, Paula Dulett. Now, at age 35, she’s on parole and heading to the ravaged hills of West Virginia’s coal country, her once-upon-a-time home.
On the way, she will attempt to fulfill a teenage pledge: the rescue of her dead girlfriend’s brother from a lifetime of abuse. This is a side story.
And, that the brother is less-than-grateful for his release, that on the journey Jodi will fall for the mother of three, that, as the story moves back in time we find the closest to happiness Jodi ever was was when she and Paula were traveling the country, living off winnings from petty crimes and gambling (a good poker hand is a “sweet sugar run”) are more sidesteps.
Jodi, hopelessly trying to get home to the land of her memory and grandmother, Effie, is the real story.
True to the form, the land and story she finds is not what she remembers.
An example: Effie had once told Jodi that “come winter, all the good-size caves were claimed by bears … Jodi loved to picture that, all the crooks and crannies of the land under her feet filled with sleeping bears.”
Now, the crooks and crannies are claimed by poverty and drugs. Worse, the bears are not asleep. Suddenly, Jodi’s road to redemption more closely resembles the fracking that blights her homestead.
Tension such as this permeates and propels the best salvation stories. This is so in “Sugar Run.”
Under Maren’s skillful handling, strained and fractured lives reflect a segment of our society easily discarded. In so doing, Maren offers both a compelling tale of deliverance, and a story that urges us to question our own concept of true north.