Thief

Thief

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by Maureen Gibbon
     
 

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Suzanne believes she knows who she is: a former wild child, neither virgin nor virginal as a teen; someone who pulls for the wayward girls and troubled boys she now teaches in Minnesota. She has learned to survive good love and bad love and people who don't care at all. At her rented cabin, she gathers strength, like a storm forming over the lake.

While

Overview

Suzanne believes she knows who she is: a former wild child, neither virgin nor virginal as a teen; someone who pulls for the wayward girls and troubled boys she now teaches in Minnesota. She has learned to survive good love and bad love and people who don't care at all. At her rented cabin, she gathers strength, like a storm forming over the lake.

While looking for a spark in her life, a random coincidence leads Suzanne to try to unlock a harrowing event from her past. She is drawn into an unusual relationship with Alpha Breville, a convicted criminal with a disturbing history; simultaneously, she begins seeing an unpredictable, dark-haired drifter—a cowboy who's part angel, part howling dog. Though the cowboy matches Suzanne in intensity and desire, he's less faithful than the captive Breville.

Which man can offer Suzanne the knowledge she seeks? Which man can truly touch her? How can she find her unique peace?

In writing that has been likened to Kate Chopin's, Maureen Gibbon constructs a taut story of desire at the other end of the Mississippi, in the north woods of Minnesota. Against deep lakes, casinos, and a bar named the Royal, Gibbon's unconventional characters show us how to play the hands we're dealt and own the choices we make, in a tough and tender book about hard-won redemption from one of America's most original writers.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
After placing a personal ad in the local paper, Suzanne, the narrator of Gibbon's abysmal latest (after Swimming Sweet Arrow), is shocked and intrigued when she gets a response from an inmate. Having “always been interested in black sheep and underdogs,” Suzanne writes back, and, as it turns out, Alpha Breville, her prison pen-pal, is a convicted rapist, which strikes Suzanne as providential, as she was raped as a teenager. Thinking maybe she can work out some of the lingering trauma of that event, she embarks on a tempestuous relationship with Breville, first through a series of candid letters, then through visits to the prison. While at first she finds it therapeutic to figure out the other side of the rape “coin,” Suzanne must ultimately face the fact that this miscalculated experiment in self-liberation can depend on no one but herself. But what's in it for the reader is anyone's guess; Suzanne is less a character than a phoned-in grotesque thrown together to serve the requirements of an ill-considered story of petty self-enlightenment. (May)
From the Publisher

“In her relentlessly compelling new novel, Thief--which I read in a single sitting--Maureen Gibbon's plainspoken, tough-minded heroine gives herself an unsentimental education and issues a sorrowful yet stirring declaration of independence.” —David Gates, author of Jernigan and The Wonders of the Invisible World

“Gibbon writes beautifully of the heartbreaking gulf between expectation and reality that women continue to endure, and the tragedies that await those who refuse to abide by these difficulties. It is her heroine's refusal to be afraid, her understanding of the violence at the heart of things, her embrace of the world's beauty, and her great conscience that save her, and inspire the reader.” —Susanna Moore, author of The Big Girls

“In an odd way this book is a female, and highly sexual, version of Thoreau's Walden; there are some lovely bits about solitude, nature and solitude-in-nature, but Suzanne is a woman who craves and needs contact, and much of her contemplation is devoted to exploring the tangled roots of that need. Grim but inspiring, this is a flint-tough, plainspoken novel about a flint-tough, plainspoken woman who asks no pity and gives no quarter.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This searing, compact novel can be read in one sitting for maximum intensity. Suzanne's direct voice, stripped of self-pity, will draw readers in and keep them there.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

author of Jernigan and The Wonders of the Invisibl David Gates
In her relentlessly compelling new novel, Thief—which I read in a single sitting—Maureen Gibbon's plainspoken, tough-minded heroine gives herself an unsentimental education and issues a sorrowful yet stirring declaration of independence.
Library Journal
Suzanne leads a double life. She assumes one role when teaching English to wayward teens and another, very different guise with the men she chooses for her risky sexual encounters. While summering at an isolated cabin in northern Minnesota, she places a newspaper personal ad and receives two responses: one from incarcerated rapist Breville, the other from aimless cowboy Brill. Victim of a rape during her teen years, Suzanne begins a correspondence with Breville that starts with a series of candid, increasingly sensual letters and progresses to prison visits, then embarks on a string of random one-night stands with the erratic Brill. Through her craving for these two enigmatic men, Suzanne begins to come to terms with her own traumatic past. VERDICT In prose that is frankly sexual yet too raw to be truly erotic, Gibbon (Swimming Sweet Arrow) chronicles a damaged woman's attempt to heal herself through a series of destructive relationships. Compelling yet at times almost too uncomfortable to read, Thief will resonate with fans of Ellen Hopkins and Kathryn Harrison, as well as gritty memoirists like Kathie Dobie and Kerry Cohen.—Jeanne Bogino, New Lebanon Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews
In the second novel by Gibbon (Swimming Sweet Arrow, 2000), a woman who was raped as a teenager begins a correspondence-and then rather more than a correspondence-with a convicted rapist who's in prison. Suzanne is a Twin Cities teacher who works with troubled teens. Coming off the latest in a series of tempestuous relationships with flawed and slightly dangerous men, she decides to give up her apartment for the summer, retreat to a lake in northern Minnesota and regather her strength and her wits in anonymity. Lonely, she places a personal ad, and before long she embarks on an exchange of letters-at first wary, then increasingly frank-with a prisoner named Alpha Breville. As the summer wears on, she finds herself more and more embroiled, both emotionally and erotically, with this man for whom she feels a simultaneous attraction (a tricky thing to convey to the reader, but Gibbon accomplishes it) and repulsion (an easy thing to overdo, but Gibbon shows restraint). Suzanne keeps driving several hours downstate to visit Breville, wearing more and more revealing outfits to titillate him-and questioning her motives and her aims every step of the way. In the meantime, she gets involved with an unreliable, hard-drinking drifter, a howling cowboy prone to unpredictable appearances and disappearances. In an odd way this book is a female, and highly sexual, version of Thoreau's Walden; there are some lovely bits about solitude, nature and solitude-in-nature, but Suzanne is a woman who craves and needs contact, and much of her contemplation is devoted to exploring the tangled roots of that need. Grim but inspiring, this is a flint-tough, plainspoken novel about a flint-tough, plainspoken woman who asks no pity and gives no quarter.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374274542
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/27/2010
Pages:
192
Sales rank:
883,419
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Thief


By Maureen Gibbon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Maureen Gibbon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-27454-2


CHAPTER 1

BEFORE I MET ALPHA BREVILLE, all I knew about Stillwater, Minnesota, was that antique shops and a cloying quaintness filled its downtown. I'd gone there once on a Prozac-induced spending spree and come home with an ink-stained quilt, a book of Jesse Stuart stories, and about thirty old photographs I'd stolen from various stores and shoved past my jeans into my underwear. The photographs were worthless, but Prozac made me compulsive, and I couldn't stop myself from falling in love with the old-time faces.

My favorite photo, the one I framed and hung on the wall beside my bed, was of a man who looked to be in his forties, and who struck me as being a country preacher. He wore a dark suit and limp string tie, his expression was patient and sorrowful, and in spite of careful slicking back, his hair sprouted cowlicks at his forehead and above each ear. Across the bottom of the dirty cream slip that held the photograph, someone had penciled t-h-e-i-f. It was partly that misspelled word that made me fall in love with the photo, and I wondered who had labeled the man: a family member who judged and banished, or the thief himself, giving himself penance by owning up to his misdoing. I decided it was the latter, but probably only because the photographer had tinted the cheeks of the man a faint red, and the color looked like hot shame.

I met Alpha Breville after he (along with a grave digger and an engineer) answered a personal ad I had placed in a weekly paper. When his letter came to me with his prison number as part of the return address, I thought it was laughable that a convict believed he had something to offer me in terms of dating, and I questioned how an inmate at Stillwater state prison even got the $2 the paper charged to forward responses. I thought about throwing away Breville's letter, but it was somehow impossible to do. Even with the return prison address, the airy white envelope held the promise that all letters held. So I read the thing, and after I did, it seemed the joke was on me, because the letter Alpha Breville wrote to me from Stillwater state prison was no different from the other letters I'd received in response to my ad. There was an explanation of why he had chosen to write (my headline "Great kisser, good listener" caught his eye), followed by a short personal history and accounting of years, a series of questions for me, and a conclusion expressing hope that I would write back. An ordinary letter. I don't know why that surprised me so much — after all, there is only so much that can go into a letter, and it was in Breville's best interests to make himself sound like any other man. But it was the ordinariness of his letter that startled me. If what a convict wrote was no different from what other men wrote, maybe he himself was not so different.

Yet something was different. In explaining that he came from a town in western South Dakota, Breville wrote that though he missed his family and the land, he did not miss living there with its isolation. It was a thoughtful observation and one that meant something to me, since I'd spent time in South Dakota and knew how it could feel. But the part of Breville's letter that really got my attention was the part that came next, his description of a sunset: In the summer, the sun is the color of orangeade and fierce when it sets. You think it's going to stay burned in your eyes forever.

It was just a couple of sentences — strings of words. But he was absolutely right. The summer I was out there, the sun really didn't look like anything natural on this earth, and if I watched it too long as it slowly set behind the flat line of the horizon, I would be blinded to all color for a long time after. Of all the things men had written in their letters — paragraphs about seeking "friendship" or "that special someone," or clever descriptions of what they liked to do in their spare time — nothing struck me more than Breville's words about the nuclear-looking South Dakota sun.

Of course, in that first letter Breville didn't tell me the most important detail: why he was in Stillwater. The omission itself seemed damning, but even as I thought that, I also understood his choice. Either his incarceration would repel me so much it wouldn't matter what he'd done, or else I would write back and, in doing so, give him an opportunity to explain. It was the only decision he could make, the only gamble he could take, and anyone smart enough to construct a very normal letter would be smart enough to take that chance. After all, I told myself, Rochester didn't come right out and tell Jane Eyre he had a crazy wife in the attic — he didn't tell until he had to.

The book was still on my mind because I'd finished the school year with it, teaching it to the seniors. When we got to the section where Bertha's presence at Thornfield was revealed, most students said they could understand Rochester's decision to conceal the truth. They believed almost to a person that Jane would never have even "given him a chance" if he'd revealed everything at the outset. When I pressed further, though, and asked them if they didn't think that such an omission was a type of lie, they uncomfortably agreed it was. But still, they'd said. But still.

In any case, I suppose it was partly because of Jane Eyre that I decided to take things one step further and write back to Breville. And it wasn't because I had some romantic notion that I was Jane and Breville was Rochester. It's just that thinking of Jane Eyre made me remember I had enough of my own secrets to know they couldn't be the first things told.

I'd always been interested in black sheep and underdogs. When I was a young girl, I liked boys with wolfish faces, who had a bit of the hoodlum in them, and my tastes still ran that way. My most recent relationship started when I saw a man get off a bus on Lake Street, and he saw me see him. We circled each other on Hennepin until he came up and began talking to me. I didn't care that he worked as a dishwasher. I liked his face and his body, and I was glad that he liked mine. Even in my job, where I played the role of maiden aunt, I often went out of my way to help delinquent boys and wayward girls. I saw in those students pieces of myself, but more importantly I tried to see them as they were, with dignity. I believed each of them had a voice and a story, and at least some of them reflected that belief back to me. For instance, last year Danielle Starck wrote on the back of her school picture, Your class was the reason I came to school. The following semester, when she wasn't my student, she tried to kill herself. I'm not saying I could have stopped her — I was only an English teacher — but maybe I could have helped her. I do know I would have tried.

It was that kind of thinking, in part, that made me give Alpha Breville a chance.

CHAPTER 2

THOUGH I WAS INDICATING MY OPENNESS by the very act of writing back to Breville, I thought it would be best if I sounded guarded in my reply. So after my greeting to him, I wrote, "I'm not sure why you answered my ad. I'm looking for someone to date, and you can't offer me that. Frankly, I don't know what you can offer anyone. But perhaps we can exchange a few letters. You seem like a thoughtful enough person."

Even that slight compliment seemed like a risk, however, so I followed it up immediately. "While I understand why you might be reluctant to tell me why you're in Stillwater, you must know you have to," I wrote. "I expect complete honesty. Surely you can see the need for it. I have to know how you came to be in prison. If you can't tell me that, I would prefer you didn't write back at all."

I didn't bother to say that I could find out anything about him I wanted — it was true, even in those days before the Internet. Whatever Breville had done was a matter of public record, and I was sure he knew it. Then I sent off my letter, an ink-jetted copy as depersonalized as I could make it. If he wanted to respond to my question, he could, and if he didn't, I stood nothing to lose.

When I didn't hear back for a week, when no plain white envelope with the Stillwater return address showed up in my mailbox, I figured my price — honesty — had been too high for Breville to pay. And I thought it was for the best. Whatever the reason was for Breville's incarceration, I didn't need the drama. I'd come up north to a rented lake cabin the day school let out, and in the days after I sent my letter to Stillwater, I did all the things I'd driven four hours north to do: I swam, I went for walks around the lake, and I watched birds — loons and eagles, and a great blue heron that crossed so low over the water I could hear its wing-beats. In the afternoons, after the worst of the sun's burning was over, I took a small pillow down to the dock and slept on the hard boards. I never thought I would be able to sleep in the light and sound and breeze of the day, but I always did. And when I woke — groggy and hot — I'd climb down off the dock and slip into the deliciously cold water. It amazed me that I felt so at ease in a place I'd never been before. Part of me wanted to tell someone about how the days felt, but another part of me wanted to keep it secret. Mostly I just wanted to go on feeling the way I did.

The lack of response from Breville gave me time to think, and I began to believe that my willingness to write to him was just another sign of being adrift. While my work life was stable and pleasant enough, pieces of my personal life were in their usual disarray, and I was glad I hadn't told any of my friends about writing to Breville, since I knew what their reactions would be. My friend Kate would rush on to another subject, trying to be nonjudgmental yet judging all the time, and Julian would castigate me. He knew everything that had gone on this past year, and why I'd decided to move out of my apartment and put some space between me and my old life in the Cities. "What is wrong with you?" I could hear him asking. "You just got rid of one dangerous asshole. Do you need to invite another into your life?"

To a certain degree he would be right — I did love danger. Adventure. There was a part of me that was content being an English teacher, living in book-lined rooms, writing poetry, hanging out with friends. But sometimes those things didn't satisfy me, and like most people, I led a double life — and at times even a triple life. I was one person during the week, another with friends, and someone entirely different on weekends when I went out. I said I wanted a healthy relationship with a man, but I did nothing to find one. Instead, I patched together half-relationships and weekly assignations. I did nothing to unite the disparate pieces of my life. But as I always pointed out to Julian, I didn't want to marry any of the men I dated — I only wanted to kiss them and fuck them. I knew how to draw the line. I also knew writing back to Breville had probably been foolish, and I knew it without any loving, meddlesome friend pointing it out to me.

And then a letter came. And I could tell by the heft of it that Breville had decided to tell me his story.

I didn't open the letter the way I often opened my mail, right there at the mailbox, or walking the gravel road back to the cabin — I waited until I got inside. I don't know why. Maybe I didn't want to read in the bright June sunlight that Breville was a drug dealer, a thief, or convicted of some kind of assault, or maybe I already felt too secretive about the correspondence to begin reading on the public road. All I know is that as I opened the envelope, I tried to ready myself for what I might find. Yet when I started thinking that burglary would be a more acceptable crime than, say, assault, the idea of preparation seemed silly. Whatever Breville had done, it had been serious enough to land him in Stillwater, and no amount of rationalizing on my part would change that.

Breville began by thanking me for the opportunity to tell me about himself and then apologized for taking so long to reply to my request. It took me a while to write back because I don't like to think about the details of my crime, he wrote. But, yes, you are right, you have the right to know.

At nineteen, Breville said, he was a thief and a drinker, "a user and an abuser." He took any drug he could get his hands on, though he preferred alcohol and marijuana because they were the easiest to get. His only idea of a good time, he said, was when he could get wasted. One night when he had been out drinking and partying with friends, he decided to break into a house in South Minneapolis because he wanted more money.

I was only going to steal what I saw through the window. A TV and a stereo. I didn't think anyone was at home. But when I got inside the house, the woman who lived there heard me. She came out into the living room to investigate. I didn't see or hear her at first but then she asked me what I was doing. She was wearing just a robe and I saw part of her breast. That's when I decided to rape her. I didn't plan to do it but, I did it.


Breville went on to say that he believed he would not have raped the woman if he hadn't been drinking that night, but he said he also realized that was no excuse:

I was a different person when I was drinking. Crazy. But that was also part of my crime, or at least part of my sickness. I have been sober for seven years, in a 12-step program. But I doubt I would have changed at all if I hadn't been sent to prison. I'd be out there running the streets. Or maybe I'd be dead. I don't know.


Breville told me he received more than the mandatory sentence because he pled innocent to the rape and showed no remorse. Even though police found some of the woman's possessions in his apartment the morning after the rape, he thought he could beat the charge because his lawyer told him there was no DNA evidence.

I was in denial then about my crime. But I did it. I raped that woman. That is my crime. If you do not want to write me again I will understand. I will more than understand.


After I finished reading Breville's letter, I let the pages drop to the floor. I didn't do it to seem dramatic — there was no one there to see the gesture. I dropped the pages because I didn't want to hold them anymore. Breville had sat in his cell writing the letter — for days, if what he told me was truthful — and now the pages were here in the kitchen of the cabin, and I didn't want to touch them. I didn't want that proximity to Breville. I didn't even want to see his handwriting on the cheap notebook paper.

The letter stayed on the floor for days. I walked past it at first, and then I pushed it under the kitchen table with my foot. I told myself not to think about it, but I did think about it. I thought about it when I was swimming, and when I lay on the dock, reading or writing in my journal. I thought about it when I talked in the yard with Merle, the old man who was renting me the cabin for the summer, and I thought about it as I drank my morning coff ee under the birch tree. And what I thought was that the whole thing was a colossal joke, some ridiculous trick the universe was intent on playing on me. I place a personal ad in a paper and a rapist responds. But in a while, that idea passed, too, if only because I knew the universe wasn't particular enough to single me out. In one way, what had happened was an ugly sort of coincidence, but in another way, it was predictable enough. One lonely person placed an ad, and another lonely person had answered, and who else could be lonelier than a rapist in Stillwater state prison?

Days after receiving Breville's letter, I picked it up and read it again. Not because of some sick impulse, as Julian would say, but because I thought maybe the letter represented a different kind of chance — an opportunity, if you will. I picked the letter off the floor because I thought maybe Alpha Breville and I had something to say to each other. I had been raped when I was sixteen, and he had raped when he was nineteen.

We were two sides of a coin.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Thief by Maureen Gibbon. Copyright © 2010 Maureen Gibbon. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Maureen Gibbon is the author of Swimming Sweet Arrow, a novel, and Magdalena, a collection of prose poems. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she has received fellowships from the Bush Foundation and Loft McKnight.

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