Mesha Maren. Sugar Run. Algonquin Books, January 2019. $26.95.
The question of retribution, both its origin in desperation and its inevitable consequence, hangs over the head of each character in Mesha Maren’s harsh and elegiac debut novel, Sugar Run. Set largely in rural West Virginia and moving between the late 1980s and mid-2000s, the narrative follows the trials and compounding frustrations of Jodi McCarty, a thirty-five-year-old woman entering back into the cold stream of life after eighteen years behind bars for a crime of fatal teen passion. Through a confluence of circumstances all too familiar to a certain class of formerly incarcerated Americans—a permanent financial void and an absolute lack of connections on the outside—Jodi quickly finds herself paired with the energetic and intoxicating Miranda, a small-town Georgia barfly looking for an escape from her failed marriage to a washed-up country crooner. Together, along with Miranda’s three children and troubled Ricky, the younger brother of Jodi’s ex from the ‘80s, the duo charts a course north to a remote mountain farmhouse, determined to knock a slew of familiar troubles off of their trail.
And yet, as the journey simultaneously forces the crew up against the barbed-wire fencing of America’s institutional failures in Appalachia, the lead-heavy ache of previous trauma persists in Jodi, Miranda, and especially Ricky, whose issues with processing years of physical abuse and neglect at the hands of his father are only exacerbated by his limited mental faculty. In each case, whether in scenes from the distant past or the here and now, Maren is especially masterful at mapping the inner terrain of individuals who can’t help but feel reduced, by seemingly arbitrary systems of oppression, to ghostly and impotent fragments of their former selves. By harnessing Jodi’s ever-evolving views on criminal justice, fracking, queerness, and religious intolerance—tied at every point to the expansion of the character’s desire to make a new home out of the unruly people and landscapes that populate her current station in life—Sugar Run interrogates the very parameters of the nature vs. nurture debate. Is rehabilitation possible? And if so, is it a teachable thing or is it random? The same might be asked of the role of retribution in Maren’s world, where suffering is so tied to hope as to seem codependent. Is revenge a choice, or is it merely a convenient lens for chaos, a sieve for those moments of transcendent violence through which every single thought and choice that comes after is destined to filter?
As the novel barrels on toward its inexorable conclusion, the division between those who are awake to the precariousness of their lives and those who remain ignorant of it becomes increasingly stark. Upon the precipice of self-actualization, just as the reader gains full access to the deadly moment from Jodi’s past that has thus far defined her adult life, Maren abruptly shifts another character into the crossfire of personal tragedy through a present-day scenario somehow even more catastrophic and calamitous than the one that sent our protagonist to prison at seventeen. The resulting scene, and subsequent conclusion of the novel, is shocking in all the right ways. Shocking in that most literal sense of the word—in that it threatens to overload our human circuit and rewire us so that, in the aftermath, we might find our bodies more grounded to the shifting earth beneath our feet, might discover a new thread of recognition unspooling, illuminated, between the spirit of others and our own.