Mesha Maren’s intriguing debut novel revolves around secrets: those we keep, those kept from us, and the pain and dangerous consequences that sometimes result when they are revealed.
Set in the mountains of West Virginia, “Sugar Run” opens with 35-year-old Jodi McCarty released from a Georgia prison where she served time after being convicted of manslaughter at age 17. Maren’s lyrical language describing Jodi’s transition from incarceration to freedom prepares us for what lies ahead: “Perhaps, Jodi thought, release was like diving, or rising rather. You could die from that, she’d heard, coming up from the ocean floor altogether too fast.”
Jodi is full of secrets, as are most characters in “Sugar Run.” She keeps secrets from people she meets, from her family and from us. We learn early on what she did 18 years ago, but we don’t know the details of what happened until the story almost concludes — although our suspicions gain momentum as the novel progresses.
Before prison, Jodi had a lover named Paula whose body, as Jodi remembered it, was wheeled away by paramedics. After her prison release, Jodi planned to return to the mountainous West Virginia property where she was raised by her late grandmother Effie, but first she heads south to search for Paula’s younger brother Ricky. There, she has a fortuitous encounter with a troubled woman named Miranda.
Miranda has three young children and is unhappily married to a country singer whose career has slid dramatically downward. Jodi and Miranda quickly become lovers, and each convinces the other they offer some kind of solace to the formidable problems they face.
Soon Jodi and Ricky, along with Miranda and her kids, drive to Effie’s property, which Jodi believes she has inherited. But she learns that it was sold because of defaulted taxes, adding to their considerable woes.
Maren adroitly incorporates issues surrounding poverty in rural America into her narrative, including drug dealing and addiction; lack of jobs; fracking, which destroys communities and the land’s ecological health; and gun violence, which can change everything in a moment.
Jodi contends with all of these in addition to being gay in a devoutly Christian part of the country where acceptance is rare.
“Sugar Run” is organized into chapters that alternate from present to past and back again. The past focuses exclusively on Jodi and Paula’s passionate and occasional criminal life, which revolves around Paula’s gambling.
This narrative style is slightly troublesome, as there are inevitable references to past events in the present chapters. This leads to occasional murky moments for readers. Also, a minor flaw in the tale is Jodi’s preoccupation with guns, which seems counterintuitive to her oft demonstrated compassion and love for others.
In the end, Maren’s story is engaging and full of damaged and provocative characters who, like all of us, can be misled by our hearts. As Jodi recalled: “ ‘All it takes is just one great hand,’ Paula says between swallows of beer. ‘Just one night, with one sweet sugar run, and you’re hooked.’ ”
Jim Carmin is a writer and book critic in Portland, Ore.
By: Mesha Maren.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 306 pages, $26.95.