Years after running away from America and the mysteries surrounding her mother's death, Merle Winslow winds up editing trash novels at X Publishing in West London and shacked up with a drug-addled diplomat's son. Shaky and defeated, she heads home to Florence, Ohio, with no money and no idea of what to do next.
Meanwhile, Merle discovers that her brother Olin, rich and successful from marketing Marilyn Monroe meat thermometers, is poised to embark on a dubious performance art career, and that her stodgy father might be falling in love after years of living alone. As Merle looks for clues about her mother's life she uncovers disturbing new truths about her own romantic failings. She suspects she's never really escaped her old life; she's simply dragged it along with her, "like an outfit that was ill-fitting and too revealing, but impossible to get rid of." But with the help of her tough-talking grandmother, free-spirited brother, and a pilot who nurses a failing plane, Merle finally begins to face her family's checkered past and her own uncertain future.
In vivid cinematic prose, High Strung balances humor on the rough edge of loss, regret, and wounded family love. Merle is an unforgettable creation in an exhilarating debut novel from a young writer to watch.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Quinn Dalton's stories have appeared in literary magazines such as StoryQuarterly, Glimmer Train, and The Kenyon Review. She is the winner of the Pearl 2002 Fiction Prize for the story "Back on Earth." She lives with her husband and daughter in Greensboro, North Carolina. This is her first novel. You can visit the author at her website www. quinndalton.com
Read an Excerpt
My life is a story of flights.
I wasn't technically present for two of them, and they weren't even of the airborne variety, but I count them anyway.
Two were with my mother.
Two others were over the ocean.
All were short on planning and quite nerve-racking.
One made me think about death, and that was when I started to calm down.
The next to the last one: I was running, really, back to Ohio from a shitty London flat over a woodcutting shop where machines shrilled like the trussed characters in a typical X Publishing adult novel, of which I had copyedited hundreds. I was just in time for my birthday and another campus vigil. I was beat up, underfed, sexually exhausted, pornographically overwhelmed. I had been gone ten years. I had a perverted ex-boyfriend and a smoking habit to show for my time, and a friendship with Fiona, a feng shui consultant and breathing instructor who kept me centered and in cheap Silk Cut cigarettes. I was coming home to a grandmother I hadn't spoken to since I'd left, a father I didn't really know, and a brother who had fallen in love with a doll. The beginning of a new century (or the end of the old one?) was a hook trailing three perfect zeros and we were still round with loss; we all led double lives.
I hugged Fiona good-bye when it was still dark, the windows facing the Gatwick observation deck dark mirrors showing more than I needed. The sky folded open with light as the plane took off and I thought of the photograph, the one that had followed me through childhood until I finally took flight number five to get away from it: my mother and I outside the Morris P. Alston education building moments after the bomb blast, me two years old that day and screaming in my mother's thin arms, her hair tangled in my fist, the dark smudges of police uniforms in the background. She looks angry, or maybe just determined, and her free hand reaches into the air, as if trying to catch something outside the frame.
My father would never talk about the photograph, and my mother can't now, having died drunk in a car accident the night she allowed me to start wearing mascara. I was thirteen. I'm thirty-two now, the age she was when she died, and every time I take a drink I still think about it, how I could get in a car and drive into my next life.
Fiona had instructions to take whatever of mine she wanted before the landlord padlocked my cramped, loud flat. I had also asked her to tell Terence that I'd had to leave on short notice family issues, I asked her to explain and that I didn't expect to be back anytime soon. I told her to tell him I'd be in touch.
I pulled on my orange-and-brown-striped clown socks the attendant handed out, and thought of Terence and seven years one year for each name letter, each stripe on each foot. I couldn't have warned him that I was leaving. He was too persuasive, too good with the guilt trips; he would have talked me out of it. Even so, I worried for him as I watched an extra-long sunrise turn the Atlantic a sequiny brass, which reminded me of Terence's favorite mirrored hip-huggers, and which got me wondering where he would go, at which point I had to remind myself that his father was a diplomat, and he had several houses to choose from. He should have been worrying about where you would go all this time, Merle, I told myself, scalding my tongue on the black water Virgin Airways calls coffee. I realized I was pinching the inside of my arm, a habit when I was worried. This kind of compulsiveness started with games every kid played, like skipping sidewalk cracks or breath-holding near graveyards, but somehow I'd never grown out of them. In fact, I had honed and perfected them so that they made a scary kind of sense to me. They were how I tried to correct a life filled with bad decisions. Most of my rituals focused on trying to avoid mishaps while using various forms of transportation; for example, I had to cross my fingers during flight takeoffs and landings. To keep myself from falling onto the tracks while boarding the Underground in London, I had to mouth "Mind the gap" along with the fatherly, firm voice on the speakers.
I could blame this on my family's bad luck with transportation my mother's fatal car accident, my grandfather's heart-attack death on a tractor while harvesting the family corn crop when my father was eight. But really, it was because I had always been tense, even as a child, walking around with my shoulders crammed into my neck, second-guessing every smile Are they laughing at me? I'd always wonder, no matter who it was. I had to admit that, at the age of thirty-two, after sampling a range of therapies art therapy, aromatherapy, breathing exercises, crystals, meditation, good old-fashioned eighty-five-quid-per-hour therapy the fact is, uptight was just who I was.
Terence would be fine, I told myself as I flipped through the in-flight magazine, in which a blind and deaf fifteen-year-old was interviewed after climbing Mount Everest and a supermodel insisted you could travel to the Bahamas with a swimsuit, wrap skirt, and scarf and come up with twenty different wardrobe combinations. Terence would slink like a cat through life, always composed, always true to himself alone. I would have to learn to shed my dog ways, my compulsive habits, my obsessive loyalties for people who didn't extend the same concern for me. You're going home to grow old alone, I told myself as the plane lowered into a cloud bank over New York.
Copyright © 2003 by Quinn Dalton
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book caught me from the first page until the last page. I read every word. I will look for this author to write more books. What a great book for a first book! I am mature and a picky reader, and this was a book I couldn't put down.
High Strung is terrific. Quinn Dalton's charaters are funny and funky and freaky to boot. When I first started reading, I recommended it to my daughters and their friends because I thought the young nail-biting character, Merle, would resonate with them. As I read on, I saw that it is also a book for those of us baby boomers who tried with varying degrees of success to make a difference in the world. The book makes you think about the personal cost of taking a stand and the greater cost of hiding on the sidelines. Definitely a great read, I can't wait for more from Quinn Dalton.
I loved Dalton's story of an exhausted, at-the-end-of-her-rope woman giving it up and going back to the beginning to sort things out. I dog-eared pages--'That was the way he was: unfaillingly concerned for the poor, the underrepresented, the lonely, but somehow tuned out from the people closest to him.' A distanced heart--well, that is what Merle is doing...closing the distances that will kill us if we don't overcome them. 'but of course I had just taken my old life with me, like an outfit that was ill-fitting and too revealing, but stuck to my back.' And 'We had cheated ourselves with everything we had decided not to know.' Ah. Dalton's Merle is working her way from the center of fallout of a decade of full fledged flight from home and family. Her decision to return home, to ask the questions and come to terms with the answers, is a lesson in overcoming, a blessing in its story of incremental successes of a maimed but perservering family. Dalton mines the energy of a good mad and delivers her goods on the edge of humor that makes heartbreak bearable in the moment. The wedding scene is lovely, funny medicine for long-suffering guests who submit to Cinderella-events programmed by polyester brides and grooms without a hint of a clue about life in the real lane. Find it! Read it! Laugh. And cry when you find thirteen-year old Merle shadowing as a thirty year old, again asking questions, finally able to bear the answers, to move beyond the pain and on into life. Jessica Williams Walkertown, NC
With her debut novel, Quinn Dalton has wrote has some excellent prose. Trailing the life of a woman with so many questions about life and love and opportunity. I highly recommend this book, it's witty and exciting prose is something to definitely read.
More and more are we high strung, for the world inevitably closes in on us as it 'gets smaller,' as we're now fond of saying. Quinn Dalton nails this condition with her character Merle and with Merle's surroundings, whether Ohio or London. As life grows more hectic and uncertain, it necessarily becomes more comical, if we only allow ourselves to see the humor; Dalton possesses an innate gift for this, which she masterfully conveys through her prose. After so many years of working side by side with her boyfriend in a pornography publishing house in London, Merle realizes that the life she has been leading cannot be hers: 'I knew that I had to go home the day Terence told me about the swinging ferry. It was 7:00 A.M. and he was leaning against my clinking radiator, which we were still using even though it was mid-April, the windows misted wet, Terence smoking one of his hashish cigarettes, eyes glassy, dark red hair wreathed in yellow smoke. He was wearing his favorite turquoise ultrasuede trousers, silver- tipped Converses, and a gray jersey with a pink flower embroidered on the left breast.' While it would be wrong to disclose exactly what a swinging ferry is, we can peek at Merle's anxiety dream that night, in which she and Terence were driving up the street of her childhood home in America, 'except we were driving up the wrong side of the road. I was in the backseat, being chauffered by Terence, who turned full around to talk with me, ignoring oncoming traffic. I ducked and screamed, waving at him to turn around. And then the bugs appeared. Big, brightly colored jelly bugs like my father's fishing lures, climbing the half-rolled-down windows, crawling in. In his sleep, Terence turned over in my bed and brushed my shoulder, and I lurched sideways, whacking my head against the dresser.' Of course, since our lives are stories, threads often woven without our conscious assent, they also vibrate with all the other trappings Shakespeare would happily point out to us: political intrigue, placement (or displacement) in history, tragedy, humility, the grace to keep moving forward and discover meaning amidst chaos. As a small plane's engine fails during a horse- sperm delivery, a marriage proposal is given as the narrator flashes to her mother's car-crash death and her father's maneuvering--when he was a child--the tractor that his own father lost control of as he was dying. So many angles are taken into account in Dalton's novel, reminding us that we all play essential instruments in a cosmic symphony, essential even when some of these instruments happen to be high strung.
I LOVE THIS BOOK, AND WILL READ IT AGAIN. WE ALL HAVE TO GO BACK HOME AND FACE OUR DEMONS, IN ORDER TO MOVE FORWARD. I CAN'T WAIT FOR ANOTHER BOOK FROM THIS AUTHOR.