So much of what this novel has to say feels bracing and necessary. This is where a good part of America lives—dangling over a chasm.
Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce. Random House, 224 pages, $23.95.
By Ted Kehoe
VLADIMIR. Did I ever leave you?
ESTRAGON. You let me go. (Waiting for Godot, act 2)
Between these lines of repartee lies a world of human suffering. Here is a sin and complaint we all recognize. Didi has failed Gogo with a lack of attention, and Didi’s conviction that he has acted rightly all along is upended, in three words, by his friend’s wounded reply. Didi’s sense of self is dislodged. But Gogo also transfers responsibility for his own welfare to Didi, which is hardly fair. And even though they are talking about the same thing, abandonment, they offer opposing accounts. Many art works draw on these themes in Beckett’s masterwork, but few resonate so deeply with its sorrowful and complicated vision of desertion as Love Me Back. Merritt Tierce’s smart and ruthless debut novel uses contradiction in a similar way as the only means of expressing truth.
Tierce is a National Book Award “5 Under 35” honoree. She was a Meta Rosenberg Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and received the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. In the interests of fairness and full disclosure I should mention that I know this author a little. We attended the same graduate writing program. We’re friendly on Facebook. But I did not know her at all when I first encountered her work.
Love Me Back is episodic, told in roughly chronological fashion, and details a woman’s progress through the restaurant world of Dallas, Texas. Early on, we learn that Marie is young, only sixteen, when she starts at Olive Garden and she is somewhere in her twenties when her affiliation with The Restaurant (a generalizing pseudonym for what is apparently a particular upscale steakhouse) peters out. But the story is so much more than the working stiff blues. We learn that Marie was a teenage mother and, through the spare and affecting sections of direct address, that the novel is a sort of love letter/apology/confession to her daughter Ana. At times, Marie’s body literally aches for her daughter. The novel’s suspense derives from its structure, as we learn, through a nimble accretion of detail, more about Marie: her past, her desires, her pride and shame.
Enough about the bones of the book. It’s a wild read. The novel is deeply imagined and Marie’s point-of-view is hard to shake. She has off-and-on substance-abuse problems. She cuts and burns herself. She has a lot of sex, A LOT, much of it brutal and self-destructive (the latter word is not my moralizing but rather a frank description of her intent). The story is told in the peculiar argot generated by restaurants (but with a grace and invention that is Tierce’s) — a mix of lyricism, Spanglish, street patois, formal diction, industry jargon, and one-liners. It evokes perfectly the various worlds the waiters, bartenders, bussers, food-runners, and bar-backs move through. Yet the various moments of excess and savagery and tenderness are rendered with a disquieting flatness of affect that recalls the best writing of Bret Easton Ellis or Joan Didion. Marie is just barely hanging on—socially, financially, psychologically—in spite of what she’ll tell you.
So much of this story, like Beckett’s play, is about a bifurcation of self. All that Didi knows is that he was told to wait here and he will do so at all costs, yet he is driven mad by the fact that no other character notices the killing repetitiveness of life. Marie is proud of her professional skill and her fortitude, yet she punishes herself with a series of masochistic acts.
“Suck It” is the hardest chapter to read because it dramatizes the nadir of Marie’s self-abasement. There are moments I wanted to look away given the things Marie was telling us. Here we are introduced to Danny, the general manager of the Restaurant: “Danny’s appetite is the spirit of the place: the excesses of an entire microculture are concentrated in his one body.” Danny is a savant, a junkie, a fixer, an artist, a conman, a predator, and a walking analog for life in the restaurant business. Most of all, he’s a dissembler, a manipulator, as many of The Restaurant’s employees are. He fawns over and despises his clientele. He loves and bullies his employees. He is servant and master both. Some of the book’s most affecting prose is in this chapter. Here is Marie on why she seeks out punishment, on her willful alienation from her most precious thing:
It had something to do with love and something to do with grief. It was just this: I’d be down on the floor sometimes, picking up fallen chunks of crab cake near some diamond broker’s shoe, with my apron and my crumber and my Yes, sir, certainly, right away, and I’d feel impaled by the sight and feel of that half-eaten crabmeat because it wasn’t her sparkly laugh and it wasn’t that place on her shoulder, right up against her neck, that smells like sunlight, I am not a mother, I’d think as I walked to the trashcan….[I]t was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.
This terrible conflict is at the heart of Love Me Back. Marie cannot devote herself to being a mother (“I just woke up one day and said I can’t do this. This isn’t real. I’m in the wrong life,”) and cannot stop thinking of her daughter every waking moment. Didi and Gogo MUST see Godot, so they stand still. Hurry up and wait.
In the chapter “Calvin D. Colson” we find the apotheosis of a high-end hustler. Cal is all technique and swagger and poise and Marie is full of admiration and skepticism: “Where was the nugget you couldn’t massage or change or put a pinstripe on and was it that confident. Was that kernel whole and well or was it sad, smacked out, lost. I don’t know but I think a showman is all show. There’s no secret—or there is, and that’s it.” Cal is the co-worker and married man Marie wants and her sexual desire is all wrapped up in who he is at work. She has moderated her drug use and drinking and the frequency of sexual encounters for a chance at a life, or at part of a life, with him. And Cal toys with her. But even that’s not quite right. He runs up a six hundred dollar cell phone bill running game on her, and he tussles with her in his underwear on the wall-to-wall carpet of her expensive apartment, but they never have sex, and he consoles himself with the notion that he has remained faithful to his wife.
The thing that frustrates Marie most is his self-deception. Or his hypocrisy. Are they the same thing? And of course she sees her own actions in his—mortgaging her life for her daughter and spending all her time away from her. “That was the contradiction. That’s what I’m trying to get at. He took it for granted that you would do some things that just weren’t straight, and he took it for granted that that was justified. I guess that’s corruption. Riding those actions like a boss.” Eventually, Marie reaches her limit. She becomes dangerously disaffected with the gluttony and extravagance on regular display at The Restaurant.
If the novel is flawed in any way, it’s in that it is occasionally too adventurous. The book relies on the reader to put the story together in his or her own head and occasionally this challenge can be disorienting. At times the point-of-view slips a little, as when we slide behind the eyes of Jimmy, the piano player. But these off-kilter moments are minor, given how well the fragmented story reflects the segmented and half-confabulated nature of memory. Also, there are funny moments in Love Me Back, but Tierce is not going for the jaw-dropping balance Beckett’s “tragicomedy” aspired to. And it would be a mistake to reduce Love Me Back to an expose of the service industry. It is about something deeper: the conflict between obedience to, even pride in execution of, a prescribed set of rules while knowing that performing a meaningless task well is not getting you anywhere you want to be.
I suppose that gender and sexual politics play a role in the novel. To some extent, Love Me Back is about the degree of control Marie has over her own body. And she is impelled through her ordeals by guilt over maternal feelings she feels she lacks. Still, there is a way in which reading this as a strictly feminist text feels a bit like a trap (“A bruising novel with frank depictions of self-destructive behavior and a character who expresses ambivalence about being a parent. And it was written about a woman by a woman! Can you believe it?”). For me, the class and political issues here are at least as important. Sanchez and Miguel and Benito and Niño, just a few members of the largely Mexican support staff, deserve their own novel. And Marie appealed to me as an individual. I felt deep uneasiness at my recognition of her vulnerability and bravado, her total reliance on another for guidance, her striving for something while, as it turns out, pulling in the wrong direction.
I loved this book. Maybe it’s because I spent fourteen years in the restaurant business, many of those in fine-dining steakhouses very much like The Restaurant. Maybe it’s because I have a baby daughter and I am keenly aware of what is riding on my ability to hold things together. But so much of what this novel has to say feels bracing and necessary. This is where a good part of America lives—dangling over a chasm. On one hand, it’s a travesty that a waiter makes more than, say, a pediatrician, but as Marie points out, “…you never lose the feeling that it’s fragile, your connection to that money.” Most of us will not launch the new Internet startup. Most of us have things we cannot afford to lose. And for these reasons, we understand why Didi and Gogo will be out by the side of the road tomorrow feeling swindled and hopeful. And Marie will be tableside, reciting her spiel, trying to keep part of herself out of reach.
Ted Kehoe was a teaching/writing fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Epoch, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and Shock Totem. He won Prairie Schooner’s Bernice Slote Award for Best New Author. He teaches writing at Boston University.