TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Writer Mary Gaitskill explores extreme emotional situations. Her 2005 novel, "Veronica," for instance, was about the friendship between two women; one of whom was dying of AIDS. It was a finalist for the National Book Award that year. "The Mare," is the title of Gaitskill's new novel. And book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's the kind of horse story that only Mary Gaitskill could write.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: 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 a difference to Velveteen, or Velvet as she's called, simply by living next to a rundown 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 fairytales. 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 benefactor's 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, whose (indiscernible) turns courageous in her caring for Velvet but also to 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, Sylvia (ph), 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, Sylvia 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 character's 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-ta-tat poetic catalog.
(Reading) Ginger recalls blank loneliness, broken by friendships that would come suddenly into being, surged 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 3 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 Mary Gaitskill story - that is a soft suggestion that some of the characters might just make it through.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Mare," by Mary Gaitskill.
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GROSS: Tomorrow, we'll talk about how ISIS is trying to acquire a lethal substance called Red Mercury to weaponize into a doomsday bomb, but Red Mercury doesn't exist. My guest will be New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, who has an article in this week's New York Times Magazine called "The Doomsday Scam." And we'll talk about the weapons ISIS has managed to get their hands on and how they got them. Chivers has reported from many warzones. I hope you'll join us.
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