Sarah Bruni's debut novel is about small towns, sex, coyotes, and 1970s superhero comics. It is also about how girls and boys create their identities (secret and otherwise), escape small towns (via fantasy, car, crime), and write themselves into and out of stories in which, at first glance, they appear to be only minor characters.
On the cusp of eighteen, Sheila Gower has one friend ("she had always preferred the company of intense and loyal outsiders"), no plans to go to college (having grown up near one of the "more modestly sized Big Ten universities in the Midwest," she "felt she had already been to college and she really hadn't thought much of the experience"), and works nights in a gas station, where she studies French and plans to escape small-town Iowa for Paris. In walks a slightly older boy with an I.D. (fake, she presumes) proclaiming himself to be Peter Parker, the alter ego of Spider Man. After her French teacher dashes her illusions of Paris, telling her that French people also have Burger Kings and thunderstorms and bills to pay, Peter offers her a chance to participate in his fantasy instead. Sheila thinks, "maybe this was one way to leave a place, with a boy and a gun" and agrees to roadtrip to Chicago, playing Bonnie to his Clyde.
Once on the road, Sheila discovers, to no one's surprise, that she has been cast as Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's first love. She runs with it, embracing Gwen and Peter, in name, dress, and as a real- life romantic super-duo. Her lover-abductor has reasons of his own, stretching back to his boyhood, for choosing this particular plot. Being both too young and of a different gender than those typically obsessed with seventies-era Spidey comics, the lady playing his heroine doesn't know, at first, what any teenage comics geek does: Gwen Stacy will die.
But Gwen-Sheila is not Gwen Stacy. She seems to genuinely fall in love with Peter and finds that he makes her world bigger ("Peter made her want to talk to strangers. He made her think there was something to talk about even in Iowa"). "Gwen Stacy never had a chance," writes Bruni. "She could never do anything but react to the elements of the story that befell her." But Sheila insists on an equal role in their story, telling Peter, "This thing we are together you don't own it." She improvises her lines, takes action, and rewrites the script. As she is told by a pack of possibly mystical and occasionally articulate coyotes who dog her throughout the story, "If you are reading the signs, you are writing the signs they say what you see in them." From the elements of retro boyhood camp, teenage girlhood and love vigilantes, Bruni forges a modern, subversive, original story of her own.
Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Times Book Review.
Reviewer: Amy Benfer
Read an Excerpt
Seasonal change was descending in its temperamental, plague-like way in fits and spurts on the middle of the country. There was a false sense to the air, all the wrong smells. That spring, Sheila bought herself a single-speed bicycle from the outdoor auction along Interstate 80. She rode it down the Coralville strip to work. She pedaled fast, as if to keep up with traffic — an exercise in futility — and swallowed the air in gulps. When she reached the Sinclair station, Sheila felt faintly dazed, like someone about to pass out. Sometimes she saw black spots where the white line of road was supposed to be. “You all right? Miss?” Motorists would lean their heads out windows when Sheila stopped on the shoulder of the highway to catch her breath. Or sometimes: “Lady, get out of the road!” This was Iowa; no one rode bikes along the highway. Bicycling was a nice hobby for children but not a reliable mode of transportation. For Sheila, this was the most exhilarating part of the day. This was the only exhilarating part of the day.
It was the spring of the year that coyote sightings started garnering national attention. The headlines sounded like a string of bad jokes: coyote walks into a bar. coyote caught sleeping in mattress shop. pack of coyotes causes delays at o’hare. The scientific community insisted there was nothing to worry about, that the species was extremely adaptable, that they mostly traveled at night, that they rarely ate domestic pets without provocation. Yet, people couldn’t help but notice how stealthily the coyotes seemed to be infiltrating the small towns and cities. Morning joggers complained of coyotes crouched behind trees along public parks. The presence of the animals often wasn’t witnessed firsthand by more than a few early risers. But hearing of such sightings was enough — also knowing they were out there at night, outsmarting the rats, sleeping in the alleys.
It felt as if entire ecosystems had become confused. That fall, two whales had dragged their giant bellies onto dry land. The whales seemed determined to beach themselves despite rescuers’ efforts to return them to the water. Strange symbiotic relationships were popping up everywhere, often involving the abandoned offspring of one species adopting an unlikely surrogate parent. A lion cub might choose a lizard as its mother and receive a five-minute slot on the evening news, curbing coverage of the latest political corruption scandal or plane crash.
There were other things too. Even in the Midwest, anyone could tell that the whole planet was out of whack. It had been too warm for snow until well after New Year’s. The salt truck drivers were mad as hell. Shovel sales were way down. It was months later that all that hovering precipitation finally found its way to street level. March came in like a lion, went out like a lamb being devoured by a coyote. Which is to say that it warmed up, but in a sneaky, violent way that made everyone slow to pull out their lighter clothes, so as not to look gullible at a time when everything felt like a fluke.
You could feel all this in the air, riding to work each day. Sheila was a gas station attendant right now, and she was a model employee. Four days a week she biked along the strip, straight from school to the station. She never missed a shift. She never called in sick. She was saving up. She had a year’s worth of deposits in the bank — all from working at the Sinclair station — and when that growing fund hit a certain number, she was leaving the country for an undetermined length of time. She was buying a plane ticket to Paris, and anyone who had a problem with that could shove it. “France?” her father said when Sheila told him her destination. When he said it, the whole country sounded like an adolescent stunt, a dog in a plaid coat and socks. “Remind me again what’s wrong with your own country? Are you hearing this?” he’d ask Sheila’s mother, who would shake her head or shrug. Her sister, Andrea, and her sister’s fiancé, Donny, thought it was a frivolous way to spend money. They were saving to open a restaurant. Andrea was watching prices for lots on the west side of town. There was a business plan. It was going to be called Donny’s Grill. The two of them were a little too entrepreneurial for Sheila’s taste.
“But you do all the cooking,” Sheila had protested.
“Yeah, well, it’s a team thing. We’re a team, okay? Teamwork? Does that mean anything to you?” asked Andrea. “Think about it. Would you eat at a place called Donny and Andrea’s Grill?”
“No,” said Sheila.
“No, you wouldn’t. And you know why? ’Cause it’s too friggin’ long. Besides,” she said, “we’re going to try doing all the cooking together.”
Andrea had moved out of the house two years ago, which was about how long she had been engaged. She started wearing acrylic fingernails so that the hand with her ring didn’t look so otherwise lonely and unadorned. She favored shades of salmon. As a girl Andrea had been overweight and eager to fall in love. Sheila wanted, of course, to fall in love, but not with someone like Donny. Not with someone from Iowa.
Sleeping in her parents’ house, Sheila would sometimes wake to the wheels of jeeps screeching around the corner. As they turned near the street, several boys would shout, “Iowa Hawkeye football!” Then they would make animal noises. The real animals that lived nearby were quiet, frantic things that made no sounds. Squirrels that scattered and little sparrows that hopped between the cracks in the sidewalk, scouting out crumbs with an awkward deference. Most of the animals that had been indigenous to the land before the college moved in had been preserved in the Iowa Museum of Natural History on the third floor of Macbride Hall. There, they were stuffed and arranged before paintings of their natural habitats, interacting with predators, feeding their young. Several prairie dog pups curled up close beside their sleeping mother; rabbits and ground birds were positioned as if scurrying at the feet of an elk. A single coyote in a large case did nothing but stare straight ahead, sitting off to the side of the other animals, as if it were too proud to act alive. The plaque outside its case said, “Mountain coyote. Genus and species: Canis latrans lestes. Indigenous to Nevada and California, the species can be found from the Rocky Mountains westward, as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Arizona and New Mexico.”
The coyote, the sign explained, takes its name from the Spanish word coyote — coyote from coyote! This redundancy struck Sheila as hilarious — but the scientific name was derived from the Latin: barking dog. Coyotes were wilder, noisier cousins of dogs: kept later hours, spanned greater territories. Their hunting was marked by extraordinarily relentless patience. Coyotes were stubborn, though also oddly adaptable. Their communication, described as howls and yips, was most often heard in the spring, but also in the fall, the time of year when young pups leave their families to establish new territories. “You idiot, you could have gone anywhere,” she wanted to say to the coyote in the case, “and you came to Iowa?” But the coyote still seemed young; clearly, it either was the progeny of transients, or it migrated straight to Iowa only to be promptly shot and stuffed.
The coyote that Sheila visited always regarded her with a look that seemed to say, Well, it’s just you and me here, isn’t it? We might as well say everything. Sheila liked how isolated the coyote seemed to be in the middle of its glass case, staring straight forward as if about to address her, mixed-up in a survival narrative that had nothing to do with other coyotes, a transplant from some other territory. At least once a week Sheila rode her bike to Macbride Hall, pressed her nose to the smooth glass of the display case, and spilled her heart out.
Sometimes she would ask the coyote questions that she never had the guts to ask anyone alive. The coyote regarded Sheila stiff lipped from inside its case. The last time she had visited, Sheila had pushed her forehead flat against the glass and asked, “How am I ever going to get out of here?”
The coyote knew things. You could just tell. Sheila wasn’t stupid enough to expect a straight answer to a question posed like this, but she knew how to interpret signs. This was how things were here. People believed in waiting for signs. People believed that things happened for a reason, and Sheila was not above this logic. She fixed her eyes on the still glass eyes of the coyote. The coyote was past the point of escape, but in its eyes was something fleeting that belied a former familiarity with the concept. When you work in a gas station, people love to assume there’s something wrong with you. That you’re not driven, or you’re lazy, or you didn’t have the grades in high school, or you’re not all there. It makes them feel better about their own lives. This was just a theory that Sheila was harboring. But it was a theory based on research and observation. Behind the counter, she performed sociological experiments. Sometimes, still red faced from her ride in, she’d sit behind the counter, out of breath, and stare into space, sneak an occasional cigarette, or put quarters into the M&M’s dispenser and listen to the stale candy turning around in her mouth like gravel under a wheel. When customers would enter the station and find her gnawing on hard candy by the handful, Sheila would receive cold, disapproving looks, especially from women, many of whom were not that much older than Sheila. “Really?” their looks said, “Isn’t there something sort of pathetic about this?”
Other times, Sheila would place her French vocabulary workbook on the counter. She wouldn’t even open it, just let it sit there between herself and whomever she was helping. The effect was remarkable. “What a great job for a student!” the same women would shout. “You must get all your homework done here.” As she counted their change, Sheila would smile in a demure, hard-working way and let them go ahead and think whatever they liked. She was a student; she was a gas station attendant. Student. Gas station attendant. A young woman with promise. A burnout at seventeen. She had observed women around here long enough to see the way they sized one another up like that, always a series of calculations to determine who would amount to something, who would amount to nothing. So she liked to move the French book around and screw up their calculations. Sheila thought the whole town could go to hell.
Sheila was a decent student, actually. Not great — probably good enough to get herself in to some college, but not enough to get scholarship money. Her father had told her that he could help her out a little, but if she wanted to do college, she was going to need to take out loans. The thing was, Sheila felt like she had a pretty good idea of what college entailed; she had grown up in a town that bordered one of the more modestly sized Big Ten universities in the Midwest. The boys wore white hats, backward, and called each other fag as a term of endearment. The girls carried handbags to class in lieu of backpacks and did not own winter coats. On weekends during snowy weather, girls could be seen in tight black pants and multicolored leotard tops, floundering between bars in hordes to keep warm while buying gyros, safety in numbers against frostbite. By the time she was about eleven, Sheila felt she had already been to college, and she really hadn’t thought much of the experience. Instead, she was saving all her money, and she was going to go somewhere she hadn’t already lived her entire life.
Most of the teachers in her high school — themselves the products of a liberal arts education — endlessly praised the benefits of applying to college straightaway, but her French teacher was the exception to this rule. “Yes, let’s all rush off to school and waste thousands of dollars before we even know what we care to study or do with our lives!” Ms. Lawrence mocked the conventional wisdom that the guidance counselors were doling out. When speaking in English, Ms. Lawrence had a habit of using the first person plural like this and engaging in arguments with herself. She wore complicated patterned scarves in her hair and had immaculate posture. She had been sighted kissing a man — through the window of a car in the school parking lot — who looked about ten years her junior and whom she referred to as her “boyfriend.” She would come to class on Mondays and say things like, “Did anyone make it to the opening of Mother Courage this weekend at Hancher? My boyfriend and I went on Friday, and it was really exceptional — well, if you’re in the mood for Brecht.” Ms. Lawrence had come to Iowa from Delaware, a place far away enough that it might as well have been France. A humble state, modest in size, that Sheila imagined to be full of lanky women with hairstyles and handwriting as deliberate and meaningful as Ms. Lawrence’s.
Très bien! Ms. Lawrence would write in the margins of Sheila’s homework. Fantastique. And staring into the neat, narrow letters that Ms. Lawrence’s pen had produced, Sheila felt a temporary relief pass over her like finally here was someone with whom she could actually communicate.
At the station, Sheila had a few consistent patrons. Ned, a Vietnam vet, came in daily to purchase a pack of Pall Malls with change that he accumulated from bottle returns. Five cents for empties in Iowa. He’d stuff his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans and pull out fistfuls of change — he started with the pennies and stacked them up in tidy piles of ten on the counter. Sometimes Sheila would tire of counting and say, “Ned, they’re on the house today,” but Ned didn’t want her charity.
There was a guy who bought gas sometimes, or sometimes a pack of Camel straights. The first time Sheila checked his ID — state law for anyone who appeared under twenty-seven, although he hardly did — she barely registered that his name was Peter Parker, but she wondered about it later. Peter Parker didn’t talk much. The first couple of times she offered him the wrong pack of cigarettes he looked away and said, “Straights, no filter.” So she thought he was a bit stuck-up. Once she started getting it right she’d have the pack waiting on the counter for him before he asked for it; sometimes she’d give him the cigarettes for free. She could tell Peter appreciated her generosity, but he never let on. He wouldn’t even say thank you, just sort of tip his head.
The gas station was on the same highway as the exit for one of the biggest malls in Iowa. Cars would pull off Interstate 80, cars from all over the state. There were vans and minivans and pickup trucks. They were filled with people, kids with faces pressed against the windows in the back seats. The men all came into the station and bought a pack of gum or a soda and asked her how much farther to the mall, just straight ahead, was it? Was it true that the mall had a carousel inside? A movie theater? An ice-skating rink?
They would pile their families into the truck and start driving blindly. When they reached the gas station they knew they were on the right track, but the kids had become restless, they needed gum to quiet their running mouths. Their mothers needed a fresh pack of Ultra Light 100s, their fathers needed confirmation that they were almost there.
“I hear this mall’s got twenty restaurants inside,” they’d say.
“At least,” said Sheila. “There’s a whole food court.”
“Just straight ahead, then?”
Peter Parker stood in line once behind one of these families, smirking. When he reached her register he put on a voice. He made his eyes all big and pushed his dark hair off his brow. He said, “I hear this here mall’s got a full casino on a riverboat floating in the basement, and the parking lot is paved with gold.” He leaned into her across the counter, and Sheila felt her stomach rise in her chest as the distance closed between them.
“Absolutely right,” she said. It was the first time they had spoken more than the few words necessary to exchange money for cigarettes or gasoline.
“So what time do you get off?” Peter said. “Sit at the blackjack table with me and we’ll throw some cards around. What do you say? We’ll make a killing.”
“I get off at eight,” Sheila heard herself say.
In her mind, the slot machines glittered. Coins spilled from them to the floor. People threw up their hands. People raised their glasses. When she closed up the station and started to ride her bike home, she was a little hurt that he hadn’t showed, though obviously he had no intention of doing so from the start. She had to reason with herself on the ride home — that casinos were desperate and lonely places, that she wasn’t even old enough to gamble, and that anyway, the place didn’t exist! — to stop conjuring an image of Peter playing slots alone, to stop thinking of the fact that he hadn’t come back for her.
But after this day he rarely missed one of her shifts. Peter made it a point to sit with her for a few minutes in the station, long enough for a cigarette and a conversation. After he’d been coming in for a while, Sheila asked Donny if he knew of any Peter Parkers. “Sure I do,” Donny said. “Spider-Man.” No, not Spider-Man, Sheila had explained patiently. Just some guy. “Some guy that thinks he’s fucking Spider-Man,” Donny said. But Peter Parker was just a guy who drove a cab at night and who would stay for five or ten minutes when he came into the gas station if he was between fares. Sheila was supposed to discourage patrons from loitering like this — there were some shady characters who drove up and down the Coralville strip after nine — but she liked Peter Parker. He had nice hair, dark, overgrown, with strange waves that fell into his eyes if he leaned in to look at something closely, like if he was spilling the contents of his pockets on the counter, searching for a five. There was always dirt under his fingernails when he rested his hands on the counter, and his hands were broad and calloused, like maybe they served him in a particular way that had nothing to do with gesticulation or the exchange of money. Donny was probably wrong about Peter Parker. It was a common enough name. Anyone could have it. But it gave Sheila a welcome diversion to reroute her brain in the direction of secret identities and second lives. It seemed a fine way to pass the time to imagine that the dirt under his fingernails was residue from saving the world.