Online Edition: Summer 2004

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The Long Haul

Amanda Stern

Soft Skull Press ($12)

by Stephanie Anderson

In her debut novel, New York writer Amanda Stern depicts the anguish of a doomed and dangerous relationship between a young man and woman—two people who consume each other with the same ferocity with which they consume drugs and alcohol.

The book begins with an elegant, haunting overture: "Three years before we said out loud alcoholic, my breath rode Rochester's snow as icicles. We scraped the car, our girl, big blue. He let me drive plastered behind a wheel. Not our house, we laughed how easy stealing was. His panic attacks in each ventricle. His mother ate him young as afterbirth. His singing—mournful, never about me." This epigraph, composed of paraphrased excerpts from subsequent chapters, serves as a preview of what's to come: the harrowing tale of a self-destructive relationship told in poetic and, at times, heart-wrenching prose.

The Long Haul details the whirlwind courtship and coupling of the unnamed female narrator and her addict boyfriend, a man simply referred to as the Alcoholic, in a series of short chapters in language peppered with the pop-culture credo of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Her decision not to name her characters creates a distance between the two of them and between the story and the reader—an unsettling but ultimately effective method. The characters never come alive as individuals, since Stern situates them only within the confines of their codependency—but their venemous relationship takes on a life of its own when coupled with her lush prose.

The book's unique structure also distinguishes it from other relationship-gone-sour fiction. Stern tells the story in a nonlinear fashion, winding through the past and present, often from one paragraph to the next. The circularity of the storytelling confuses at times, but the absence of a chronological line suits the meandering lifestyle and recollections of the narrator and the Alcoholic, as they flit from college to therapy to gig to rehab. Stern intersperses odd but beautiful stream-of-consciousness passages between some of the chapters. These sections remove us from the narrative, and from the conventions of space and time altogether, but they provide clear insights into the mind of the narrator:

There's a burn on your back the shape of Florida but you won't tell me how you got it. … You have secrets I want to know.… I want to see through you, memorize your veins. I lick your eyelids when you cry, run my tongue over your lashes. The salt burns on your face but tastes sweet and sad on my tongue. I want to know why people are warning me about you.

And we need these insights. Stern avoids opportunities to give her characters greater depth by introducing important (and often nightmarish) episodes that never fully develop. She dedicates an entire chapter to the narrator's obsession with her psychotherapist, but we never get a clear sense of either her resolution or continued fixation. In a chapter titled "The End of the World," the narrator and the Alcoholic attend a party together, and she narrowly escapes being raped by another partygoer. The narrator flees, finds the Alcoholic, and then the chapter abruptly ends. The characters never mention the attack again, and we can only infer the ordeal's significance. In this way, Stern plumbs the depths of co-dependence and addiction, but diminishes other dramatic elements.

What Stern chooses to explore, however, she explores well, recounting with grace and precision the depression and downward spiral of the two main characters and their relationship. Instead of growing annoyed at their incapacity, we hope they find the strength to leave each other. Even though we know early on that the relationship will fail, Stern's capacity for storytelling keeps us riveted to see how the tale unfolds.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents