Below writer and professor Carrie Spell offers an appreciation of her former writing instructor Mary Robison’s latest novel, One D.O.A. One on the Way, in the context of the author’s larger body of work.
The people Robison creates may avoid spelling out their every emotional response, but they do continually regale us with sharply and deeply observed facts about their surroundings. The narrator of the story â€œI Am Twenty-One,â€ originally published in the collection An Amateurâ€™s Guide to the Night and reprinted in Tell Me: 30 Stories, complains of another college student, â€œHe was a quitter, a skimmer, I decided; a person who knew shit about detail.â€ Attention to detail is Robisonâ€™s skill, a trait she attaches to her characters which seems to keep their lives in order when everything else defies control.
This is certainly true in Robisonâ€™s latest novel, One D.O.A. One on the Way. Like her previous novel Why Did I Ever, the new one is constructed of short vignettes. The narrator, Eve Broussard, is a film location scout in New Orleans, her work having dried up after Hurricane Katrina. She lives with her husband, Adam, who is sick with Hepatitis-C, and his twin brother Saunders, with whom she is having an affair while his wife is in a psychiatric hospital, in the mansion of their wealthy parents.
Eve begins the novel by telling us that sheâ€™s stepped on â€œa rusty fucking nailâ€ and goes on to explain that this happens to everybody â€” the novel being set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Robison then writes, â€œThereâ€™s a little window period with Tetanus, of about twenty-four hours.â€ Absolute fact. Check.
One D.O.A. also includes a recurring thread of bulleted facts not only about New Orleans but also about guns:
Robison has always written about disorder, but now that sheâ€™s writing about New Orleans and its lack of recovery, she provides a new dimension. The ruins of the landscape and its people let us know that Eve is not the only one suffering and unsure. In one scene at a restaurant, she observes a father forcing his son on all fours to eat off a plate on the floor, the man gripping the boyâ€™s neck. Patrons leave, and everyone is appalled, but no one does anything, including the narrator herself who can only observe and report.
Eve also makes other, sometimes absurd lists â€” of things stolen by her young kleptomaniac niece, Collie, and of things sheâ€™ll never do again, like â€œwearing the Trotsky t-shirt or newspaper hat to church.â€
These lists are the rules, a way these characters make sense of disorder, no matter how arbitrary. Actual rules no longer exist â€” especially in New Orleans â€” so they stick to whatever they know. For example, Eve learns in the first couple of pages that her assistant, whom sheâ€™s been calling Lucien, is actually named Paul. She continues to call him Lucien. And Lucien has his own rules. When finding someone elseâ€™s handwritten grocery list, he decides that the â€œobvious conclusion is, buy everything on the list.â€
Through it all, Robison also reminds us of just how beautiful this world is, with sky that is â€œa grape colorâ€ and â€œtree-lined avenues, fields of indigo, King cotton, cane, cows, high tension lines, cricket oil wells, now stretches of winding country roads, moss-covered monuments, oddly still bayous, long alleys of arching Live Oak trees.â€ Yet despite the loveliness of this description, something sinister lurks behind those images of the old South â€” King cotton and moss-covered monuments reminding us of the racist, violent Southern past that unfolded on these bucolic country roads with their lazy cows. This is the strength of Robisonâ€™s work, the insistence on writing of an America as it is lived, warts and beauty, word for word.