Book Review: Victoria Patterson's Drift
In the opening story of Victoria Patterson's powerful and aptly-named debut collection, Drift, a newspaper article hanging on a restaurant wall explains how Newport Beach—located in Orange County, California—acquired its unofficial nickname, Shark Island: in the late nineteenth century, fishermen caught sharks in the waters just off Newport Beach and "towed them to shore, where their carcasses were used in the business of manufacturing oil" and where the remains of the sharks were left "lying on the sand in various states of rot—from mildly decayed to skeletal."
These thirteen interconnected stories are gritty, and, at times, unstintingly bleak portraits of the many faces of Newport Beach, where Patterson grew up. Like those carcasses littering the then-uninhabited shores of Shark Island, the people who populate this collection are in various stages of decay, emotional and physical: the divorcee and the drug addict, the unfulfilled upper-class and the middle-class clawing their way to get there. The suddenly lower class. The orphan, the single mother. The widow and her lesbian friend whose infatuation she selfishly exploits. The ghost of an estranged son.
The potency of these stories stems partly from the way Patterson juxtaposes her own brutally honest vision of Newport Beach with the many images of "manufactured attractiveness" the city presents to the rest of the country. Take Christine, for example, a teenage tennis phenomenon who has three-ways with college boys because her father is an overbearing born-again Christian who abuses her and who "used to touch [her]." Or the ever-skateboarding John Wayne, the most endearing of the reoccurring characters in this collection, who must prostitute himself to rich, elderly men in black Mercedes to get by after his family "fired him like a bad employee" when a drug overdose resulted in a seemingly debilitating head injury. Or the Armenian hostess who, on her wedding night, has to rely on a friend to bring her a raw sirloin to mark her purity on the ceremonial cloth she must return to her husband's parents. And then there's Rosie, the most prominent character in this collection, who's been on a self-destructive path for years that has resulted in countless nights of blackout drunkenness and numerous sexual encounters with men she rarely recognizes the following morning.
The greater strength of these stories, however, lies in the quiet, subtle encounters between similarly misunderstood characters. As she directs these desperate people towards each other, Patterson's skill in weaving exposition into slowly unfolding narrative both holds your attention and allows you to understand completely what's at stake for these individuals when they collide. When they do, you're just as stunned and surprised as they are that what they've desperately wanted or needed for so long is finally realized from the people and places they least expected.
The best example is in the collection's second story, "Holloway's: Part Two," where we are formally introduced to Rosie, a few months shy of her twenty-first birthday and "seventeen days sober" after a binge that culminated in her sleeping with one of her father's golf pals. We'll learn in later stories the precise catalyst for Rosie's problems with alcoholism, depression and sexual addiction, but for now, we can listen to the voice nagging at her: "You fucked so many men. Trying to get attention and love. Your family hates you."
The elderly Mr. Vanderkemp owns the restaurant, Holloway's, where Rosie works, and according to a co-worker, he is a pervert who "reeks like a fart." Rosie is assigned to serve at his birthday party this year, and while he doesn't, indeed, smell like a fart, Rosie is still mortified to think that he might beg to "put his dick in her mouth or lick her cunt" when he asks her to come close so he can tell her something. However, when she leans down, he whispers, "I love you. I love you." Mr. Vanderkemp delivers this admission seriously and sincerely, and we see that, not only is Vanderkemp as misunderstood as Rosie, but that this brief connection is exactly what Rosie has needed: an expression of unconditional love she hasn't received from anyone in quite some time.
While this and other almost deafeningly silent climaxes are what's at the heart of these desolate narratives, there are a couple of instances in Drift that seem to tread the boundary of the sentimental. For instance, the father in "Castaways"—whose wife separated from him four days ago and who takes his son to the park for the first time since —refers to the Down Syndrome man who unexpectedly embraces him as "more open and alive than anyone he'd interacted with in years," and while this may be true, such a bold statement of hopeful feeling stands out in a collection where the same is said elsewhere with much more subtlety.
For the most part, though, Patterson handles sincerity well without resorting to heavy sentiment, and the strongest stories in this collection—which deal with Rosie's narrative and those most intimately involved with her, such as her mother, B, her friend, John Wayne, and her grandmother Dot —showcase that talent.
While the majority of these stories stand on their own, many of them depend on related narratives to complete each character's arc. For instance, we can't fully understand the poignancy of the words Vanderkemp speaks to Rosie until we've read her other stories in the collection, where we discover how far exactly she has come and how much farther she still has to go. Probably that's the nature of a collection of interconnected—rather than simply linked—stories. But what's most important here are Newport Beach's residents and the brief encounters they have with strangers and fellow invisible people. These instances of solace, albeit only momentary, are like the eye in the storm that has been Rosie and her fellow drifters' troubled lives, and it's the sense of calm pregnant with suffering that makes these thirteen stories so wonderfully and beautifully depressing.