There are more than a few moments of reckoning in this fine collection of linked stories, but one seems especially to the point. When, after tangling with the weather, the law and tricky logistics, three friends finally get a pet rat buried in a wintry park in the wee hours, Mary, our narrator, says, “It touched something in me I knew was there for good. It wouldn’t fade away with a new place, or the next year. … Life just added up on itself, and then you were you and there was no turning back.”
Each story, in its way, seems to enact this recognition as Mary describes the events and circumstances that situate her in the world. That world, initially and for much of the book, is a working-class family in a “neighborhood that mixed a Black Power vibe with the Business Dad thing,” in a down-on-its-luck Detroit that Maureen Aitken manages to make as homey and familiar as it is broken and blighted.
Mom cooks “with tips from Julia Child, and skills she picked up while working at a restaurant”; sister Meghan, an artist in the making, diets in a vain attempt to fit in with “the three pretty girls”; Dad gives Mary driving lessons (“Watch the tree! Hydrant! Truck. Truck!”) while listening to the Lions game (“Go, go!”) (oops). There’s also a cool older brother who plays basketball and a too-protective dog that has to be hidden when Animal Control comes by.
Further fixing us in time, the family takes a summer vacation that — with jostling children in the back seat, stops at Stuckey’s (“more serene than other fast food restaurants”), stays at motels, Polaroids, Smoky Mountains, the “hair-parted cornfields” of Iowa and “rigs like metal pelicans slurping oil from bone-dry Texas flatlands” — shows us childhood, and an American era, disappearing in the rearview mirror.
Soon enough junkies are staking out Detroit’s corners, young girls turn up murdered, and “a broken-down car or one wrong move could lead to an avalanche of consequences. They were everywhere. The drugs. Jesus, the vials and the bullet casings and the shots in the night. Anyone could slide. Anyone.”
Against this vital, dying cityscape, where “everyone who was robbed or attacked had a piece of advice: don’t be a girl,” Mary falls for impossible guys — a scavenger of abandoned houses, a heroin addict. “How did I miss it?” she says. “How could I not see? How could I trust anything?”
And yet, with every disappointment, every troubling encounter and failed liaison, come the quiet epiphanies that make Mary herself, and her life these stories.
Aitken, who teaches at the University of Minnesota, ultimately gets her character, following yet another guy, to the Twin Cities (cold comfort!), where her ever more powerful brew of sharp comedy and sharper pathos almost — almost — prepares us for her heartbreaking last chapter.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin. ellenakins.com
The Patron Saint of Lost Girls
By: Maureen Aitken.
Publisher: Southeast Missouri State University Press, 160 pages, $18.
Event: 2 p.m. Oct. 6, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.