Mary Gaitskill writes tough. Her characters are almost always "users" — users of drugs and other people; they're often mean and manipulative and flooded with self-loathing. In short, to quote the title of her debut short story collection, Gaitskill writes about people who are no strangers to "bad behavior." You have to write tough — and brilliantly — to pull off a novel like The Mare.
The story opens on a dark-skinned, 11-year-old Dominican girl from Brooklyn named Velveteen Vargas who's waiting at Port Authority Bus Terminal to board a bus, chartered by the Fresh Air Fund, that will take her to upstate New York. There, she'll live for two weeks with a middle-aged white couple named Paul and Ginger.
Paul is a professor and Ginger a recovering alcoholic and failed artist. They're mulling over adoption, so they want to see "what it would be like to have someone else's fully formed kid around." They think that maybe they can "make a difference," even as they're hip to the fact that that thinking is "flattering to white vanity."
Paul and Ginger do turn out to make difference to Velveteen or "Velvet" as she's called, simply by living next to a run down horse stable. There, Velvet —who's been told all her young life by her angry mother that she's "no good" and that "her blood is bad" — bonds with an abused horse named "Fugly" and discovers that she's a natural at riding.
In fact, as Gaitskill slyly suggests, this brown Velvet has a lot in common with Velvet Brown, the come-from-behind heroine of that classic equine fairy tale, National Velvet.
But, remember, this is Gaitskill, who doesn't "do" fairy tales. Instead, in chapters — sometimes as short as a paragraph — that span the next few years as Velvet continues to visit Ginger and Paul, Gaitskill twists this girl-with-a-horse-and-kindly-benefactors fantasy into something richer: a complex story about the hard realities of reaching across the lines of race and class, as well as the limits of empowerment.
Every character involved takes a stab at narrating events here, including Ginger (who's by turns courageous in her caring for Velvet, but also too needy) and Velvet, who has to straddle being the grateful good girl in the country and the more hardened adolescent back in Brooklyn.
Velvet's jealous mother, Silvia, also narrates, and, at one point, sneeringly says of Ginger, "that lady is nice because she lives in the sky. She's nice like a little girl is nice." And the thing is, Silvia is sort-of right, the way a lot of these characters are sort-of right about each other and sort-of wrong.
Gaitskill's charged writing makes all things possible here — not only surmounting the sentimental premise of this situation, but, also, delving deep into characters' lives. Listen to this monologue, where Ginger recollects her past life, marked by booze and nasty sexual relationships. The writing is classic Gaitskill, a rat-a-tat poetic catalogue. Ginger recalls:
blank loneliness broken by friendships that would come suddenly into being, surge through the color spectrum, then blacken, crumple, and die; scene after drunken idiotic scene, mashed-up conversations nobody could hear, the tears and ugly laughter quieted only by the rubber tit of alcohol or something else. Friendship was bad, sex was worse, and love — love! That was someone who rang my doorbell at three a.m. and I would let him in so he could tell me I was worthless, hit me, ... and leave unless he needed to sleep over because his real girlfriend was — for some reason! — mad at him. It was not pleasure, it was like a brick wall that a giant hand smashed me against again and again, and it was like the most powerful drug in the world..
The Mare is a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion, in which the fierce erotics of mother love and romantic love and even horse fever are swirled together. There's one more thing The Mare delivers — something you don't often get in a Gaitskill story — that is, a soft suggestion that some of the characters might just make it through.