Reviewed By RT Both
- University of Nebraska Press (2017)
- 180 pages
Melissa Fraterrigo sets her novel Glory Days against the backdrop of a key economic struggle in the United States—the death of the family farm and its devastating impact on rural and small-town life. This short novel is set in the struggling farming community of Ingleside, Nebraska, and readers might be surprised to find that its realism is as much magical as social or literary. Fraterrigo sweeps through several decades in the community of Ingleside, though not in a precise, chronological way. She uses plain language to create vivid, unexpected scenes that focus on the inner lives of her characters, including Teensy, a farmer who has lost his wife and his land; Luann and Tricia, two young women who fall for the same sexy local predator; a divorced alcoholic whose family made millions selling land to developers; and Maureen, a woman with supernatural gifts who becomes an attraction at the Glory Days amusement park.
At the core of the novel is the ill-fated story of Teensy’s daughter, Luann. Teensy and his wife struggled to conceive a child before adopting Luann, and even after the adoption, they still hoped to have a biological child. Teensy’s wife ultimately carried a baby to term only to die in childbirth, and lose the baby. Perhaps this loss is why Luann feels so betrayed. In any event, she becomes a rebellious teen and Teensy’s attempts to restrain her recklessness prove tragically futile.
Teensy has not had an easy life. Badly burned as a child in a fire that destroyed his home, Teensy was taken in by the family of a local boy, John Gardner, who becomes Teensy’s lifelong nemesis. Gardner’s mother nursed Teensy, caring for his burns with loving attention and provoking her son’s jealousy. Teensy, shorter in stature than the handsome, athletic Gardner, was never popular in school, and yet he has a stubbornness and fortitude that eventually earned him respect in the community. When he loses his land, he works an industrial job for a while and then drives a semi. He keeps going.
While Teensy drives back and forth across the country, Luann attends high school, living with a grandmother who has never liked her. She gets a job at Glory Days. She meets men. Like Teensy, Luann doesn’t fit in with the Nordic types who surround her in Ingleside; her hair is dark and curly, not straight and blond. She has a wide nose. But once she fills out, she learns that men find her attractive and this gives her a feeling of power. Her hookups are indiscriminate, but she takes pride in them, seeing them as a form of work, one she’s good at.
Like the teenage girls in Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, Luann is a postfeminist heroine with a skill set that is not traditionally feminine. In Luann’s case, this means she knows her way around a cattle barn. She can feed; she can herd; she can even inseminate. She’s both capable and willful. But like those other fictional young women, Luann’s instincts are out of whack. She lacks even the semblance of a moral compass.
Luann encourages Teensy to sell off his cattle. That’s what “most people in town” did “when the developers came.” But Teensy is stubborn. Luann knows “it would take more than a check to get Teensy to cash in.” Like Fridlund’s Mattie and Campbell’s Margo Crane, Luann goes after what she wants. “She had opened two packages of bologna and placed them in the pasture the night before. Had been hoping for coyotes, but wild dogs worked too.” If it were up to Luann, “every cornstalk in Ingleside would be yanked up and plowed over. Every empty barn reduced to a pile of board, replaced by sprawling homes with green lawns and fruit trees . . . . This life was going away, with or without her.”
Yet those new subdivisions are stalked by their own brand of impermanence, by their own futility. Soon “for sale” signs are popping up outside foreclosed homes. Somebody somewhere got rich, but the prosperity that could renew the town of Ingleside never materializes. The residents of those new subdivisions instead are apt to become victims of predation and crime. Glory Days, an amusement park built to entertain these newcomers, provides a hint of glamour and excitement. Glory Days is where Luann meets a local loser, Footer, and where he introduces her to a life of petty crime that escalates into an act of pure evil.
Alongside the stories of Teensy and Luann is that of Maureen, whose daughter Tricia was an earlier victim of Footer, the silver-throated thug. Maureen has supernatural powers that are hereditary and irrevocable. By placing her hands on people, Maureen can tell when and how they are going to die. After losing her beloved husband in a construction accident and her only child to Footer, she doesn’t have much left except her job at Glory Days, where she works as the sideshow psychic called “Fredonia the Great.” The forecasts Maureen makes about people’s deaths are true, and often not at all what the listener wants to hear. In contrast, Footer has a talent of his own: he can tell women things about themselves that are not true but are exactly what they need or want to hear.
The landscape of the novel is ghost-haunted. The dead crouch around these characters, blighting them. But the murder of a young boy at Glory Days—the tragic consequence of the fact that Footer can’t find enough ways to spread his misery around and Luann is enthralled by him—is particularly wrenching. The ghost of the murdered boy flies around Glory Days, reliving the details of his death. His only “hope for release from this in-between place” is Fredonia. “At first, Fredonia the Great thinks the spirit is a dream, some wrecked possibility,” but she soon realizes that “This is different. Someone or something lingers.”
The magical or supernatural realm, treated realistically as Fraterrigo does here, has become an accepted feature in contemporary works by literary authors. Magical realism as a distinct literary genre has its roots in Latin American fiction, among writers combining indigenous myth with the distorted sense of reality caused by living under ruthless authoritarian regimes. But in Glory Days, anarchy reigns. There is no presiding authority, oppressive or not. Institutions like the bank, the local sheriff, and the court system receive only passing reference. Still, Fraterrigo’s use of magical elements is completely in keeping with the landscape of extremes she has created, with the violence, dispossession, and guilt that haunts her characters.
It is a tribute to Fraterrigo’s skill as a writer that when she closes Glory Days on a note of hope, even redemption, it doesn’t feel tacked on. Teensy’s second chance comes about, but not through a determination to change or a sudden moral awakening. He is no hero, and he’s certainly no saint. Teensy is, however, the one character in this novel who has something to believe in, and the sheer, stubborn strength to persevere.
RT Both’s short stories, creative non-fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Great Lakes Review, Milwaukee Magazine, The Brooklyn Review, Cream City Review, Weep, Fiction Writers Review, and Rain Taxi. She earned her doctorate in fiction writing from at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and currently teaches at Marquette University.