"The thing that hurts most is other people's fear," says Julia, the mentally
ill protagonist and narrator of this dark, menacing novel set in Minneapolis. Using the emotional anguish of a mother and daughter, Joshua Furst begins his novel just as Julia's rebellious teenage daughter, Cheryl, locks herself in her bedroom, packs her bags, and marches out the front door, quietly cursing her mother's existence.
We aren't quite sure of the events that have led up to Cheryl's sudden outburst of militaristic fervor, only that there's something about Julia's actions over the past few months that has caused her daughter to unexpectedly unravel. As Cheryl, complete with a backpack covered in graffiti and safety-pin starbursts, heads to get lost in downtown Minneapolis, all Julia can do is watch her daughter recede, pulling away toward a place where her mother will no longer be able to infect her.
It isn't that easy, however, for Cheryl to simply cast her mother off. Both are tarred with the same brush, Cheryl's teenage defiance almost a mirror image of Julia's own inclination towards rebelliousness back in the early 1980s, when she frequented Minneapolis' counter cultural The Sabotage Café, the heart of the local punk scene and the place where misfits of all sorts met and mingled.
Consequently, there is little about Cheryl's urges toward unruliness that Julia hasn't already experienced and once tried to grasp hold of. At first glance, Cheryl is simultaneously smart and scarred, armor-plated
yet utterly vulnerable. When she finally disappears into the deep, dark shadows below the I-169 highway, however, Julia continues to watch over her, knowing deep inside that Cheryl probably couldn't escape her mother's clutches even if she wanted to: "I live inside of her, just as she lives inside of me."
Homeless and hungry, Cheryl eventually forms an uneasy bond with Jarod, a lonely and morose teenager who along
with his pet dog accompanies Cheryl as she lives on the streets, scavenging for food and finding shelter whenever and wherever she can. Ultimately, however, her friendship with Jarod leads her to fall in with a ragtag group of post-punk anarchists who lie, cheat, and steal,
squatting in the tumble-down shell of the Sabotage Café, now boarded shut.
Cheryl has the misguided idea that somewhere out there she will find a new vision of the world, "like a kind of Burning Man illumination." She can already tell that she won't find it with Jarod, but it is here in the gloomily atmospheric Sabotage Café that Cheryl falls under the seductive spell of sexy, cool Trent, with whom she has a passionate affair and who represents the tough alternative to
the suburban conventions of Julia.
Cheryl's passion for Trent soon morphs into a full-blown love, something vast and overwhelming
and filled with dangerous and hidden consequences. Meanwhile, Julia and her husband, Robert, are fanatically obsessed with finding Cheryl, just as Julia's angst-ridden and emotionally confused confessions of daughterly love begin to weigh her down along with her memories of her sister Sarah, now six years gone, and the only person
in whom Julia could confide.
All Julia can do is wait, locked in Cheryl's bedroom, rooting around in her closet, burying herself in her daughter's clothes, straining for further glimpses of her and the relationship they might have had. For Cheryl, it certainly comes as no surprise that hanging around with Trent and his cronies opens up a Pandora's box of bad behavior, and it doesn't take long for Cheryl to start getting her kicks out of sniffing glue and popping prescription drugs.
It's all sort of cool; there's nothing she wouldn’t do, "there was no order, no rules, except those
of Trent, or his friend Mike made up as we all strived for a refined, stylized sort of ugliness."
Full of hard-edged, brittle ironies, this novel is an emotionally hair-raising and terrifying study of two lives hell-bent and out of control. Julia gradually descends into a delusional paranoia, certain that her daughter will return and all will be forgiven. Cheryl becomes ever more determined to shut
out any memories of her mother, letting her love for Trent take over and his mad attempts to achieve some sort of distant glory in a revolution that will never come.
Furst does a great job of fleshing out his characters with the inexplicable foibles, deep-rooted idiosyncrasies and insecurities of actual people. Passionate and fiery, Julia certainly hopes that Cheryl will be much tougher than her,
yet in the end, both seem to be so emotionally immature even as they are capable of great empathy, Julia with her husband, Cheryl with Trent, and later with Jarod.
This novel is ultimately about the victim and the survivor, a mother and daughter who do love each other but, for whatever reason, can't seem to communicate that love. It's a love that whispers and lulls them both into a false sense of calm, leaving them unprepared for the next blow when it inevitably