If I were a character in a Marcy Dermansky novel, I would drive fast down the highway, love orange cats, and be at once monumentally articulate about my inner emotional landscape and deeply estranged from my body. I would be a straight white lady who knows my identities preclude me from any real political suffering and isn’t asking for your sympathy or even much of your attention. I would be caught between being young and being old, a free woman with few commitments and attachments, both relieved for this fact and guilty about it. In short, I would be fresh, and alive, and also very funny.
Dermansky’s latest novel, “Hurricane Girl,” follows Allison Brody, a 32-year-old woman who buys a house and then immediately loses that house in a hurricane. Losing her house profoundly destabilizes Allison, who struggles with stability. The only thing in her life to which Allison seems to be able to attach any real and lasting significance is real estate.
What do we really know about Allison? Besides her demographics and her lost house, we know that she likes turkey sandwiches. She’s never broken a bone. She did not do a good job as a bridesmaid at her brother’s wedding (she didn’t know she was supposed to dance or stay until the end). She really likes swimming pools; we are told she has a weakness for them “the way people need to pet every dog they see.”
Rather than convince the reader of a character’s particularities via an exhaustive inventory of details and memories, Dermansky is a master of that slippery thing we might call voice. She conjures rather than describes. Instead of turning the lens of the novel on Allison, she embeds us in Allison’s consciousness until the shape of Allison’s thoughts becomes our own. In this way, Dermansky creates an experience in fiction that is powerfully and unnervingly realistic. How often do I ask myself how I am feeling, what I am thinking, or what I remember that is the key to my buried trauma?
Allison either wants or does not want, there is no in between. But the span of time between Allison wanting and Allison doing is short. She is a character who does not know what she will want tomorrow or even five minutes from now, but once she knows, she acts. The result is a narrative that lives in a precise kind of now, that feels like the active unfolding of a consciousness. In this way, Dermansky achieves what it really feels like to be a person rather than its literary simulation.
What makes this book so funny? One answer is simple pleasure and delight, as in the elements that make up this novel are almost universally delightful. There are beautiful high rises, there are pelicans, there is a cute baby that has no name. Another is dialogue, of which Dermansky is one of my favorite living practitioners, calling to mind the sonic truth of Grace Paley and the delicious weirdness of George Saunders (Paley’s student).
When, after brain surgery, Allison’s doctor tells her she will make a full recovery, she says, “Am I supposed to be grateful?” and instead of being sarcastic, I read this as a true question. What does the world want from Allison? What does Allison want from the world?
Dermansky packs a great deal of dramatic action into “Hurricane Girl,” without straining credulity or sliding into melodrama. She has a particular talent for wedging the mundane and/or logistic up against Big Events. After a moment of great violence against her, the perpetrator asks her to feed his cats (which she does). We are told she hates the hospital where her dad died because of its terrible and expensive parking situation.
“She was nice to people, probably much too nice to people,” writes Dermansky. “She had been nice, for instance, to that Keith when she broke up with him. ‘You are great,’ she had said, one-hundred percent lying. Maybe, in her defense, she had been nice because she was worried he would hit her again.”
There is a sense that Allison is profoundly alienated from herself and in some ways uninterested in making her life into any kind of coherent story, which is a fascinating choice for the protagonist of a story to make. Fundamentally and sneakily in the end, Allison does not know what she wants, either on the small scale or the large. Does she like the man she’s seeing, who is nice, and the condo he lives in? Not sure. Does she want to buy another house since her house was destroyed? Unclear.
“She had been out in the world,” Dermansky writes. “She did not particularly like it. For a long time, Allison had not felt safe, loved, looked out for, taken care of, respected. For a long time, Allison had not had a home.”
Home then, that slippery concept, is big for Allison and it’s big for “Hurricane Girl.” Allison’s story is a powerful comedic indictment and investigation of the darkness of American millennial life, where literally nothing we were told to want is stable, not even a house, let alone a home. The book seems to ask the question: What is a life, a personality, a body, when none of the systems underpinning the things we were taught to want are working the way they should and everything is crumbling?
By Marcy Dermansky
Knopf, 240 pages, $26
Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, the author of “The Third Rainbow Girl” (Hachette 2020) and a novel and collection of stories forthcoming from Hogarth.