- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2010

By Katie Crouch
Little, Brown & Company, $23.99, 277 pages

In her debut novel, “Girls in Trucks,” Katie Crouch tells the story of a debutante from Charleston, S.C., who goes to New York to find herself and her future. In her second novel, “Men and Dogs,” Ms. Crouch, who hails from Charleston, studied at Columbia University in New York and now lives in San Francisco, tells the story of a self-centered woman from Charleston, now living in San Francisco, who is attempting to make sense of a life she recognizes as “innately screwed up.”

Hannah Legare is 35. As the novel opens, she has been kicked out of the conjugal apartment by her husband, Jon, for her frequent infidelities and excessive drinking. In an inebriated attempt to reconcile, she climbs up to the balcony of Jon’s apartment, loses her balance, falls “three long stories into the next unwanted chapter of her life” breaking a rib and fracturing her skull. She agrees to go “home” to her mother and stepfather in Charleston to recuperate rather than to be confined in a psychiatric hospital.

Hannah and Jon have been running SweetJane, “an overpriced line of luxury sex toys.” They have been very successful, merging “Southern taste with all-purpose raunch.” As a Stanford MBA, Hannah was in charge of the business end, but she stopped paying attention, had failed to put together a proper profit and loss statement, and the company was slowly drifting into bankruptcy.

Once, the Legares were a family: Hannah, her brother Palmer, father Buzz, a doctor, and pretty mother Daisy. “A mash of bodies at [Daisy‘s] breakfast table every morning. It wasn’t a Chippendale; it was from Sears. It was scratched and cramped and stained from wineglasses and coffee cups. Still, they were all there. Mother, father, brother, sister. Dog weaving in and out of their feet. … The whole point of being a mother is to have a full table, isn’t it? But all this family’s ever done is leave.”

One day when Hannah was 11 and Palmer 13, Buzz went fishing in Charleston harbor and never returned. The boat and dog were later found, but Buzz disappeared. As no trace of him was ever found, he was presumed drowned. Only Hannah refused to believe that her father was dead.

Daisy remarried a well to do businessman, Will DeWitt, and moved into Will’s beautiful inherited antebellum house with her children. Will was ” ‘loud.’ Loud voice, loud golf shirts and pants, loud stories, loud boiled-crab skin. When he enters a room, Hannah cannot stop herself from picturing a Kool-Aid commercial circa 1986 - the large, wobbling pitcher of pink liquid breaking walls and wreaking havoc.” Daisy DeWitt, on the other hand “is all about structure. Hannah doesn’t think her mother could even imagine a day of free, fluid time, let alone endure one.”Back in Charleston, “a small, Easter-egg-colored city that baked in white afternoons,” after her fall, Hannah spends most of her time drinking, brooding and replaying the events surrounding her father’s disappearance. “Memory is just a story, after all. With practice, one can adjust it. Shape the shadows to fill the empty space in your heart.”

She finds boxes of old family photographs that seem a clue to a mystery she wants to unravel. But the photographs turn out to have a very different significance than her interpretation. She looks up her taciturn high school boyfriend, Warren, now, improbably, a minister married to Jenny, the prettiest girl in their high school class, and tries to rekindle the feeling he had for her. She manages to interfere with the lives of those she left behind to the point where Jenny asks Hannah to leave and go back to San Francisco.

The secondary plot involves Palmer, a veterinarian, who has been gay since adolescence. Like his sister, he has been unable to commit himself to a long-term relationship. Palmer has chosen to remain in Charleston, and lives with his current partner, Tom, in San Francisco-style cool elegance. Tom is a kind, gentle man, who wants to have a baby with a surrogate mother, but Palmer is adamantly against the baby idea and terminates the relationship.

In a final attempt to solve the mystery of Buzz’ disappearance, Hannah takes his boat and Palmer’s mute dog out into the bay to retrace what she imagines was her father’s route. The adventure does not turn out as anticipated but it does lay several ghosts to rest. The denouement is a semi-happy ending: Palmer asks Tom to return, but there will be no baby; Hannah recognizes - at last - that her stepfather “all 250 plaid pounds of him” was always there for her and her family when they needed him. “Thanks,” she thought, “for being here when the other one wasn’t. You’ve actually always been a really good stand-in dad.” Hannah has grown up a little; Palmer has opened up a bit. Perhaps Hannah will be able to persuade Jon to take her back and there will be no divorce; perhaps they will be able to save SweetJane from bankruptcy. Perhaps.

Katie Crouch tells an engrossing story. Yet it is difficult for the reader to empathize with her main character. Hannah is so narcissistic, self-indulgent and immature for her 35 years. She has lived with her stepfather for more than twenty years and has never seen him as anything but loud and boorish, never recognizing his sensitivity and generosity. Nor has she acknowledged that her seemingly frivolous mother will go to great lengths to support her daughter, to wit, the unlikely “Tupperware” type party Daisy throws for the Charleston ladies to buy SweetJane products.

Ms. Crouch saves her heroine with the caustic wit of the narrative, and Hannah’s self-deprecatory musings. As Palmer opines, “She makes everything hard as hell, but at least she tries.” There is a sardonic tone to the novel that makes “Men and Dogs” lively, fun and a good read. It’s not great literature, but it’s a perfect book to take along for summer beach reading.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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