Apr 23 2010

There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell, by Laurie Notaro (Review)

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As you might expect, Mrs. Gneech and I frequent bookstores regularly, and one evening as we wandered into the nearest Barnes & Noble there was an author doing a reading of a humorous vignette from her new novel. So even though I’d never heard of her, I listened to the reading, then bought a copy and waited around the rest of the evening to get her to sign it.

The book was There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell: A Novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble by Laurie Notaro, whom I found out later is known primarily for her humor column (and collections thereof, The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club). …Going to Hell was her first straight-up fiction piece, and as the vignette she read put it right into the same general vein as my Brigid and Greg stories, I figured that this was an author I should get to know.

Life being what it is, of course, I only now finally read it. Though not for lack of trying — I expect I must have picked it up and put it back down about ten times over the two years it spent sitting on the “to read” pile. But I’ll get to the reasons for that shortly.

The story, in a nutshell: Maye Roberts is a reporter from Arizona (Hmm…) whose husband is offered a post at a small college in the tiny little town of Spaulding, Washington. And while the town is picturesque and full to the brim of quaintness (having been built on the fortunes of the country’s largest sewer pipe factory, then turned into a haven for ’60s dropouts and/or draft dodgers returning from their Canadian exile), it is also insular and cliquish, which makes it close to impossible for Maye to make any friends. After several gruelingly-detailed (and heavy on the zany madcap-ness) false starts, Maye makes one last desperate stab: she enters the Sewer Pipe Queen Pageant. This causes her to lock horns with the college Dean’s wife, an Old Queen (as former winners are known) herself who essentially regards herself as the actual queen of the town, and has her own favored protégé in the running. And when Maye’s sponsor dies in a freak accident involving a bug in her hair and a vicious raccoon, Maye has to seek out the Queen of Queens, the mysterious Ruby Spicer, who was the most glamorous Sewer Pipe Queen ever but who vanished halfway through her reign.

The Good

Laurie Notaro is a funny writer. She has a deft hand at setting up a situation and then making an amusing comment on it. She’s also very good at picking out the significant detail that tells volumes with just a few words.

Maye tried to smile as she passed the biddy, but the combination of decades’ worth of cigarette smoke and the eau de doggie from the numerous boxers that were standing guard — even several who had come into the room since Maye’s arrival to evaluate the visitor — made smiling a difficult challenge indeed.

The crone, dressed in a yellow terrycloth sweat suit with several burn holes directly below the neckline, closed the door and motioned for Maye to sit on the couch. As she did, Maye looked up at the grungy yellow-stained walls, the stinky brown barkcloth curtains, and the mud-colored bald carpeting, all shellacked with a grimy, dull film of exhaled nicotine and exuding its coordinating smell. Christ, she thought, it’s like this woman is living inside of a diseased, shabby lung.

Also, once the plot gets going, it becomes a very engaging book. That, however, is a bit of a problem.

The Bad

As I said, I picked up this book several times, started to read it, and put it back down again. Forcing myself to soldier on through this time revealed why: the story doesn’t actually start until you’re literally halfway through the book — and then once it starts, it runs hell-for-leather toward the ending in the apparent realization that it only has 150 pages left to cover it all.

The first half of the book is a semi-picaresque series of episodes showing Maye’s failed attempts to win friends, nearly joining a coven when she thought it was a book club, falsely claiming to be a vegetarian to get into the local vegan society, and so on. Most of it has little bearing on the meat of the plot, and some of it, I regret to say, is just plain wasted space. You could (and probably should) delete the entire first chapter in Arizona, which other than giving a misleading first impression of the protagonist, serves no story value at all. It would have been much stronger to just open with Maye and family walking up the steps to their new house with boxes in hand.

The other problem with this first half, and this can be the kiss of death for humor, is that it feels forced. Spaulding, Washington is TV Land’s idea of a quirky small town, where the mailman kicks over your trash can because he refuses to walk around it, where the local vegetarian shrieks that you are a cow-murderer, and even the clerk at the bookstore gets plastered and shouts about her period. There are no funny observations about everyday life here, because everything and everybody is a caricature and nothing is everyday. Whenever somebody new shows up, the reader finds themselves thinking, “Okay, so what’s this person’s wild-and-crazy shtick?” Of course, Ms. Notaro is known for quirky anecdotes — that’s been the main basis of her career — so it may be that readers who already knew her work were coming to the book looking for just this sort of thing.

The Ugly

Nothing to say here. The prose is very clear and clean, and Ms. Notaro has a very engaging writing style. Really, if she had taken a ruthless editing pen to the first half of the book, and then more satisfyingly fleshed out the second half of the book, I’d have only good things to say.

The Bottom Line

There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell is a good book from the mid-point onward; and even the funny vignettes at the beginning have their moments, I just wish they’d done more to earn their page count. For what it’s worth, her new book (Spooky Little Girl) looks quite interesting and I plan to pick it up this evening.

-The Gneech

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