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‘Godshot’ Writer Takes Readers Back to Central Valley in ‘Heartbroke’ : NPR

Broken Heart


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‘Godshot’ Writer Takes Readers Back to Central Valley in ‘Heartbroke’ : NPR

In Chelsea Bieker’s collection of short stories Broken HeartCalifornia’s Central Valley shimmers with heat, desire and despair.

“The sun shines here in a special way… It beats harder and harder than anywhere else in the world,” Boots, the narrator of “Raisin Man,” tells his illegitimate son Sims, a boy he loves but cannot raise. Boots sees the relentless heat as a blessing from God, sees the sun as a “natural fire in our sky” that plumps and then wrinkles the grapes he grows and turns by hand. Sims see things differently. “My mother says it’s the deepest hole in hell,” he says.

There are many versions of hell in Broken Heart and many kinds of evil that flourish in them. For 19-year-old Alma, in the collection opener, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Miners,” hell lives under the thumb of a moody hydro miner named Spider Dick, who proves to him that she cannot have “both a life of my own and the love of a man”. For a boy named Pretty in “Cadillac Flats”, hell first seems to be the slum that gives the story its name, “a dangerous area…where people drank sewage and babies crawled with it. snotty nose and crying,” though things aren’t much better at his tidy house across town, where his father drowns out his war trauma with whiskey and his mother hides her bruises and grief. . Even escaping from the valley does not bring salvation. For 15-year-old Bobby in “Fact of Body,” hell is a beach town with poisonous waters, doomed by a power plant leak, where he and his drug-addicted mother live in their car. They sell dream catcher keychains on the side of a “slow hum highway”, but Bobby makes his real money in the bathroom of a bar where his mother makes him do tricks.

Bieker perfected Central Valley Gothic in his first novel of 2020 Godshot, which focused on the same cursed landscape. But where Godshot comes to us through the voice of a teenage girl abandoned by her mother who must find her own deliverance from the “divine” vision of a false pastor, Broken Heart unfolds in a chorus of longing and grief, told in 11 different voices that Bieker inhabits with perfect pitch.

Most of the stories are told in the first person and feel like they’re revolving around beers at The Barge, where Alma runs the bar. Bieker’s opening lines suck you right into the world of storytelling. Here’s Vangie from ‘Cowboys and Angels’ getting to know us: “I had a cowboy once on a hot steam Friday night, on a hot go all the time, just us together in his truck with old ‘Angel of Montgomery’ playing the way turned out.” I could feel the steam escaping from that truck, I heard John Prine’s voice singing “Just give me one thing I can cling to / Believe this life is just a hard road to walk.” The lavender-eyed cowboy is Vangie’s “only thing”, her desire for him so strong that she tricks herself into believing he is a reward to her from God for his “patience”. Vangie, who is “one sunburnt away from old age,” must have bided her time. She suffered from her father’s alcoholism which cost the family their raisin farm, by performing men’s fantasies on a telephone hotline (the same from Godshot) while “imagining my real life taking place somewhere else, out of the valley”. Of course, Vangie only has one life, and soon she realizes that the cowboy isn’t really a cowboy, and her eyes have turned red.

In every story of Broken Heart, it’s only a matter of time before hope freezes in the infernal heat. The reader can still see the consequences of reckless desire before the protagonists, filling these pages with the terror that accompanies the desire for the impossible. Again and again we revisit the central wound that animated Godshot, which Bieker herself “cannot escape”, a condition she calls “maternal loss” – a state of grief for a mother who is alive but has abandoned her child. Here, the wound refracts into different shapes. There are women who have lost their identity as mothers, like Lisa, the protagonist of ‘Women and Children First’, who was declared an unfit mother by social services, her 9-year-old daughter placed in foster care. welcome because “alcohol was his love and his blood force.” There are sons, like Bobby in “Fact of Body”, who can’t stop loving their mothers, even when their mothers continually choose their own needs first. Bobby yearns for the woman his mother will never be, the kind of mother who “would find meaning in joining the PTA,” but he also knows he doesn’t live in a world where “there’s help out there.” to have”.

It’s reality everywhere Broken Heart – there’s no one coming to save these characters, no redemption to be had under the harsh sun. While Bieker may not mend their broken hearts, she honors their undying pain and desires, and will let you endure for them.

Kristen Martin is working on a book about the American orphanage for Bold Type Books. His writings have also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.


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