The Bad Man Comes to Stay
True Things About Me
Deborah Kay Davies
Farrar, Strauss, and Giraux, 2011
Reading Deborah Kay Davies’ fine Welsh import, True Things About Me, put me in mind of an unlikely correlate, an equally worthy novel by the too-overlooked Thomas Berger, 1992’s Meeting Evil. In both stories, our central figures find themselves in the welcoming webs of genuine sociopaths; and in both they’re forced to start making big time moral choices; they’re otherwise unremarkable people, and much of the suspense in both books is the suspense of wondering if they’ll try to stop spiraling or if they’ll ride it to the bottom – will we have the pleasure of reading a heroic wrestle or reading a wreck?
In Berger’s book, John Felton begins his metaphorical descent into helplessness by pushing a stranded motorist’s car downhill. In True Things About Me, our unnamed (female) narrator follows a sexy welfare claimant into an underground garage: “I could smell damp concrete, oil, exhaust fumes. He backed me up against a pillar. Take your underwear off, he said, and grinned, showing his teeth.”
In Meeting Evil, John’s descent begins when he finds his shirttail stuck in the door of the car and has to run alongside it. In True Things About Me, our unnamed narrator gets her new leather jacket “scratched and scored” against a concrete support pole in the garage. In both cases this is only the first bit of damage, but it’s material – not soul-sized – so it hardly presages what’s evolving.
Before her romp in the car park she holds down a desk as a government functionary: she’s young and attractive, but she’s a tabula rasa too. At work she meets a new claimant, a blond-haired, broad-shouldered chap whose name we never learn but whose insouciance and tight jeans literally charm her into his pants. He’s just out of jail and he’s clearly bad news. Post rough sex, he carries her to a cab and sends her on her way, but she can’t stop thinking about him, and so she tracks him down. Their life then proceeds as a patternless pattern: he appears when he pleases, he does what he likes with her, and then he gruffly goes. She can’t stop thinking about him, even as she comes to see how bad he is.
But a diagram of the novel’s action (a slightly rising, then sharply falling line) hardly does service to the richness and intensity of the read. The fact that Davies can evoke so much from a story of simple passion – make it funny and harrowing and suspenseful too, without slighting the intelligence of her reader or the precision of her prose – is enough to shame the likes of other lesser, more assuming lights.
And it’s a tribute to Davies that she makes such an unlikely descent read so plausibly. This is largely because even as her narrator sees and does sad and fearful things, she never loses her sense of humor about herself. Wondering why a friend seems so suddenly hostile, for example, she reasons that it’s “Probably because my life was so strange and exciting, and hers was so, well, bland and uneventful. But at the same time I knew I didn’t understand either, that recently I’d felt like a punctured balloon darting about at a party I wasn’t even invited to, making a slightly embarrassing sound.” This sly, inviting tone makes the story a constant pleasure to read, often a guilty one, as we’re entertained by one woman’s undoing: “One minute I’m ready to run away from the big, bad wolfy, and the next romping with him in the freaking forest.”
Davies’ story struck me as more powerful than Berger’s precisely because her character’s encounter with evil is so all-consuming. She is both Richie and John: she’s a victim of her own drives toward dissolution (and ecstasy – her seducer being more of a disembodied force than a character), waving away offers of rescue.
Though it may be easy to chide her at a distance, in fact she goes where there really is something to see. There’s a great scene halfway through the book where her coworkers stand around the break room talking in clichés about some rubbishy TV show:
God, Alison, I said, when did you start to care about stuff like this? Everyone stopped talking and started to listen to us. Believe it or not, Alison said, this is the real world. She was smiling at me. TV, magazines, stuff like that. It’s how we bond in the workplace, love. Over trivialities. Its known as communication. Comprondayvoo?
Inside an underpass, some graffiti reads “Is this fuckin all?” and the question is one that must be addressed. She may be burning herself up at once, but at least she’s burning. She drinks, doesn’t bother eating, and spends most of her mental capital in thralled longing, but you can’t say she’s not alive. And the truth is for all of the selfishness and irresponsibility that attends such a move, stepping outside of convention does let her see and feel what she otherwise wouldn’t. She gets to experience a sort of beyond-the-scrim world, a naked world, that the rest of us cautiously pass by. Strung-out epiphanies may be fool’s gold, but they do shine. Such revelations are written here with an accurate ring: “We were all perched on the earth’s crust so lightly … We are all skeletons, I thought. Dragging our clicking bones around, clacking about, waiting to be carted to the rubbish heap.” The thing about this is that it’s entirely true; it’s also useless. For those of us 9 to 5ing, it provides no inspiration and no solace.
The book’s major pleasure is Davies’ prose, which looks effortless but which must be the result of extensive and clear-eyed revision. Take this passage, atypically picturesque but typically tight:
I felt poised between the safe, well-lit room and the rain-soaked night outside. Me in the cold spotlight, standing like a wraith; like someone who never ventured outside. He with his body inclined toward me, one foot inside, his hair dark with moisture, his blue eyes cloudy, slightly blind-looking, already gone. The hallway briefly became the still centre of the universe. I could see the trees thrashing behind him. I looked at the way his thigh strained against the damp denim of his jeans. Where’ve you been? Hiding? Wanna come out to play? he asked me, his voice soft and coaxing. I’ve missed you like mad. I lifted my hands and somehow pushed him out of the doorway. I felt his warm, thumping chest under my palms. He smelt of wet pavements, alcohol and cigarettes. Get lost, I whispered. He was smiling. Don’t think I’m letting you slip away that easy, he said. Just as I went to shout the door he leaned in and kissed me punchily on the lips.
Note those canny parallels in the opening lines: first there’s the brace of adjectival phrases (well-lit, rain-soaked), then an opposition of positional descriptions (“Me in the cold spotlight … He with his body inclined toward me”), then the pairing of the thrashing trees with his tense legs. He kisses her, but he does it punchily. Opposites stand distinct and opposites yearn. This is the stuff of poetry, yet the story is so good, Davies weaves it almost unnoticeably.
Both she and John from Meeting Evil end their struggles in the same way—exactly the same way—and on the last paragraph of the last page. There’s no reflection on the struggle; as with that more common wrestle of passion, it’s entirely a build to a climax.
Though it plays with the tropes of heaving-bosom fiction, True Things about Me is less a romance novel than a romanticism novel – he is Blake’s tiger, and she is both Innocence and Experience. Once western culture embraced enthusiasm, it found itself embracing the spirit of revolution too. Passion craves passion; or, as Davies put it in her 2006 poem, “Devotions” (here in its entirety):
She bows her head,
clasps her hands and kneels,
pressed hard and strong and secret
by the heavy finger of desire.
Make no mistake,
it’s not for mercy that she cries,
But all of this is told so slyly in the novel that we feel as though we’re joshed with, not preached to and howled at by a raw libido. We get to chuckle and gasp at her downward journey without joining her there. If this is a limitation, at least its a wry one.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010. He is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly