(Vine Leaves Press, 2019)
Million Dollar Red is a Dickensian tale, a tough story about a tender girl. It is presented as a memoir though the first name of the author is Gleah and the protagonist’s name is Linda, but, as E.L. Doctorow (and maybe a lot of other people) said, “There is no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative.” With the exception of a few real people who are mentioned by name in the book, who cares?
The neglect, abuse, and cruelty of Linda’s childhood, involving a profligate, promiscuous mother, various drunken or addicted fathers and father figures, a beloved sister, and a skinflint of a grandmother, are as far away from “normal” as Oz. Somehow Linda and her sister hang on by their fingernails. The childhoods of Dickens’s protagonists are also, like this, darkly comic renditions of real worlds that most of us could not imagine. But he managed happy endings. [Spoiler alert] Not this book.
When the story opens, feisty Linda is ten-years old and has an irresistible voice. The narrative follows her into adulthood with a fast pace and acutely observed detail: Limoges perfume, mother sitting in her bra and panties at the kitchen table drinking vodka, the nonsense language Linda and her sister make up to keep sailors away, the sprinkle of cornmeal to purify a feather on the Hopi Reservation. The reader becomes as used to the strange goings-on and down-and-out, lunatic characters as Linda and her sister are.
By the time Linda grows up and the list of her lovers gets too long for this reader to remember, it has become clear that she was blessed with artistic talent, intelligence, beauty, and sex appeal that the average woman does not enjoy. Because of these virtues, opportunities abound, but they are strange and unproductive.
The grown-up Linda is willing to go to extremes in her “longing for truth.” With the introduction of characters who are well enough known to take this book out of the “fiction” category, such as the Italian film director Antonioni and Ordway Burden of the socialite New York Burden family, the book ascends from a hallucinatory hell to something like recognizable life. Linda crosses the country, north to Montana, south to Arizona, east to New York, west to Los Angeles, and seems to settle within herself, even if her circumstances remain tenuous. As she drives away from Montana at the end of the story, the bad guys have been neutralized and her future looks manageable.
I suspect that Powers thought long and hard about adding the few pages of addendum consisting of the story broadly retold by Linda’s mother because it is a daring tack into a blunt, opposing conclusion. The mother’s story parallels Linda’s version but suggests a more cynical, and probably more true, version of molestation, neglect, cruelty, and greed. Child mistreatment is presented as generational — perhaps this explains why Linda never wanted to have children. By referring to her own childhood, not unlike Linda’s, the mother confirms that damage inflicted by childhood cruelty flows like a malevolent river beneath the rest of a person’s life.
On the other hand, the reader might easily conclude that Linda/Gleah, after at least half a lifetime of poor outcomes, has at last found success and/or satisfaction by using her brilliance to write this book.
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