WHAT SORT OF novel is Marcy Dermansky’s Hurricane Girl? This is not an easily answered question, and I suspect it may depend somewhat on the mood of the reader. A book with girl in the title signals a page-turner, and Hurricane Girl does compel us with sex, violence, the open question of whether the heroine will be all right. As in psychological thrillers, it is not always clear whether the threats to the heroine are external, internal, or both. The bright cover says summer, and one might do well to read it on the beach, for the narrative mode is brisk and pleasurable and undemanding. It is a very funny book—deadpan, occasionally ludicrous. One must have a high tolerance for coincidence in fiction, which, fortunately, I do. It is also the sort of novel that begins with a woman setting out to live alone, on her own terms.
“Allison Brody bought a beach house,” Dermansky’s novel begins. Allison, the titular girl, is not really a girl. She is thirty-two years old, but she seems to float through life, or maybe slightly outside of life. “She lived her life, day to day, each day wondering how to get through that particular day.” Also: “All she wanted to do, more than anything, was swim.” Hence the beach house, a rambling blue one in North Carolina. She chooses North Carolina because it is the location of her favorite childhood memory. If, for a paragraph or two, some Walden Pond revelations seem imminent, by page three, Alison’s house dream is literally wrecked by the titular hurricane.
So—not really a book about a woman living on her own terms. What does the whole Walden Pond thing mean to a woman, anyway? Every college girl knows that a room of one’s own is inextricably linked to a river swim, weighted with rocks. Allison is, by the way, a pretty, white, college-educated product of middle-class New Jersey. She has also recently sold a horror film script. That archetype is operational, too: a woman alone in a cabin is a prelude to screams.
And the specter of male violence rises soon enough. There is an abusive boyfriend in Allison’s recent past. After the hurricane, she’s taken in by a creep with a nice guest bedroom and the smokescreen of pet cats⎯“He has cats, Allison told herself, because her heart had started to beat so quickly”⎯though, of course, sleeping in his guest room proves a bad idea.
This creep also initiates niceness as a leitmotif. He seems nice, but actually, he is scary. His name is Keith, same as the boyfriend who hit her. The second Keith is the cameraman who appears at the scene of Allison’s ruined beach house, and though she does not want to talk to him, “It was more awkward to be rude than to be polite.” Things spiral from there. The way Allison allows politeness, niceness, to put her in the path of danger seems absurd, but it also seems very believable. I relate to this tendency to go against any self-protective instinct in the name of niceness; I bet a lot of women do. And then there is the niceness of clean sheets, the niceness of certain nurses, the appearance of what seems to be a truly nice guy. A brain surgeon, no less! “Nice was not a quality that Allison had properly appreciated in her twenties. Allison was in her thirties now. Too many men had not been nice.” The theme recurs in Dermansky’s work as a whole—her last book was called Very Nice (a sexy, wicked novel in which almost none of the revolving narrators is nice at all). The Red Car is another of Dermansky’s titles, and there is a red car in Hurricane Girl as well. Other recurrences: a swimming pool as motivation, climactic scenes at gunpoint. These repetitions do not seem so much like Dermansky poaching herself as riffing on her own archetypes and the archetypes of contemporary life.
THERE IS DEFINITELY something wrong with Allison, but Dermansky is too fine a writer to editorialize about exactly what. We are allowed to be immersed in Allison’s confusion. Here is Allison shopping in Walmart, though it could be Allison in some larger spiritual sense: “She was not entirely sure what she wanted. She only knew that she wanted a lot of things.” She is often motivated by a mystical connection to water. “She had a weakness for swimming pools like some people need to pet every dog they see.” If there is a rosebud here, it is an insulated bottle with a flower pattern that keeps water very cold. Really, Allison sometimes seems deranged, but also, no more deranged than any of us.
By the way, for a lot of the novel, she has a head wound. The action begins a little before the first anniversary of Allison’s father’s death. Later on, she goes to Miami and orders a gin and tonic because it’s the kind of thing her father would have liked to have done but never got the chance. She is of an age to wonder if she will have a child herself. The loss of a parent, the question of whether to become a parent—perhaps the commonness of these experiences is what makes them so overwhelming. As scattering as hurricanes.
Dermansky’s prose is stylish and deceptively simple. Not exactly Hemingway-esque, although it gets a lot of mileage out of purposeful repetitions. Also, it seems easy to imitate and probably is not. (I fear I am doing a bad imitation right now.) She risks inelegance for effectiveness. She uses modifiers like goopy. There are few metaphors and few sensory descriptions, but the existing descriptions are unfancy and precise. A sunset is “stunning pink and purple.” A Starbucks croissant is “warm and textureless and delicious.” For the uninitiated, that is exactly what a Starbucks croissant is like. Allison’s is a hypercontemporary world of Starbucks and Walmart and hospitals with Star Trek reruns on the TV. You don’t need a visual, Dermansky seems to be saying. You know what these places look like.
What Dermansky’s style remarkably conveys is what this world feels like: the texture of Allison’s mind in all its contradictions, as if we the reader are witness to the currents of Allison’s inner sound. We hear her rationalizing, her doubling back, the moment-by-moment grappling with what is:
There was always a new plan. The next thing. That gave her a small measure of comfort.
It sucked, losing her house.
She could allow herself to be upset.
The repetitions, the riffing—this is all how it feels to be Allison, to be us now, swimming in our own recurring memories, symbols, nonsense. The coincidences are not so much a stylistic tick as they are part of Dermansky’s reality effect. The same stuff keeps rising in our consciousness like waves. Going to Miami and ordering a gin and tonic because one’s dead father never got the chance makes perfect sense. Buying a beach house in the location of one’s favorite childhood memory has an inexorable logic, as does the impulse to return, at one’s own peril, to the scene of the crime.