Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl, written in 1939—the year in which World War II began, the Manhattan Project got underway, and The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind premiered—had to wait nearly forty years before its publication date in 1978. If it hadn’t been for John Crawford, the founder and publisher of West End Press, whose goal was to “print works by American writers neglected by publishers in the ‘mainstream,’” this small masterwork may have remained an unknown treasure collecting dust in Le Sueur’s basement.
West End Press went on to champion and publish six volumes of Le Sueur’s work, of which The Girl was the only novel, and Le Sueur, a radical writer of the 1930s and 40s who had been blacklisted during the 1950s, enjoyed a renaissance in the 1970s (Le Sueur died in 1996).
The Girl is set in St. Paul, Minnesota, during the Depression, with much of its action centered in a speakeasy known as The German Village. This is where the protagonist, a young naïf who is only referred to as “Girl,” works as a waitress and initiates her crash-course into a harsh and unsentimental education. To metaphorically anthropomorphize the world of The Girl, and its stylistic tone, imagine Jamaica Kincaid, Ernest Hemingway, and Clifford Odets shooting the shit in a gin joint run by Eugene O’ Neill. In fact, the vividly drawn characters of The Girl would fit right in with the barflies and pipe-dreamers of O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh.
There’s Belle, a tough-minded woman who runs the Village with her husband, Hoinck; Ganz, the seedy gangster who keeps the place in operation; and Clara, who, despite her fear of burning in hell for prostituting herself out to men, views her mortal future through rose-colored glasses. Then there’s Butch, a blustery down-and-outer, whom “Girl” is sweet on. Scarred by poverty, Butch is determined to scratch and claw his way up, at least a rung or two, and no longer exist as a bottom-feeder. He, like many of the others in the novel, feed on illusions that are necessary for their survival, and for holding together their tattered dignity. Hunger, both actual and metaphysical, is the shark-belly of the book, whereas its fierce and resilient heart resides in the women.
The “Girl’s” sensual awakening, and her move from innocence to experience, is captured in brusque, tender tones. There is a raw and taut musicality, a nerve-strung throb, to Le Sueur’s prose, as she wrings hardboiled lyricism from passages that ache and palpitate. When Butch lays his hand on “Girl’s arm, “I felt all my body open in little smiles,” and in the gauzy aftermath of having lost her virginity, “I didn’t want to go out of that filthy dollar hotel room. I didn’t want to open the door and go out into the dank hall with the stinking toilet running at the end. And I didn’t want to be away from the warm breast of Butch. And it seemed like he just wanted to put on his clothes and get back down on the street . . . I wanted to hide, to stay there forever. Never to stand upright in the cold air. Strange in the city to lie prone as if in a meadow along a line of sky, and feel each near just as flesh as warmth as some kind of reaching into each other, and on the other side of accidents and tearing apart and beating and collision and running into each other and blaming.”
Later, when Belle shares the horrific details about one of the countless abortions she’s had, Le Sueur strikes requiem notes that recall Joyce’s “The Dead”: “I moved up close to her, I wanted to know everything she remembered and all the dead and living in her coming up like out of a deep sea . . . And then she began to weep for all the long dead and the coming dead, all the dead in the earth, all the dead in her. Belle was a great tomb and I moved into her fat arms and her warm great bosom.”
Out of ashes and shared sorrow, the women form a loving and tenacious sisterhood, especially after a bank robbery gone wrong (Reservoir Dogs kind of wrong), which involves the men, alters the course of their lives. After being forced to undertake shock treatment, the Clara that returns to them is a ghost, a thin whisper, and “Girl” tries to prop her up: “Don’t cry Clara, we suffer together. We are women. Nothing can hold us apart. I hurt where you hurt. What did they do to your head? Your mouth is bleeding and torn.
Clara’s eyes opened in awful horror. Her little mouth formed a round O but nothing came out. I saw in her eyes a terrible thing.
I gave out a cry. It seemed like the women below gave out a cry and the women above, and Belle screamed.
Clara clung to me and I just rocked her. She was so tiny and smelled like scorch or burn. And the terrible deeps seemed to open up.”
This novel is exactly that: a chronicle of terrible deeps opening up. An extended blues song, and a wingless dirge, whose latent impulse is toward light and renewal. Le Sueur distills the lives of these characters, as well as their hardscrabble environment, with startling immediacy and freshness, casting a “great rowdy light” on their joint drama. This novel also functions as a blue valentine and tribute to storytelling, and to torch-bearing. Or as Le Sueur attests in the novel’s afterword, written in 1978: “This memorial to the great and heroic women of the depression was really written by them. As part of our desperate struggle to be alive and human we pooled our memories, experiences, and in the midst of disaster told each other our stories or wrote them down. We had a writers’ group of women in the Workers Alliance and we met every night to raise our miserable circumstances to the level of sagas, poetry, cry-outs.”
Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, John Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. His new novel, Nocturne Variations, is soon to be published. An excerpt from it, “The Killers at Red’s,” can be found at Riot Material. To see more of John’s work, visit johnbiscello.com