Rants & Raves
VENUS OF CHALK, BY SUSAN STINSON
By Lynne Murray
Hitting the road to search for adventure and self-revelation has appealed to storytellers for millennia, from Homer's Odyssey and Jack Kerouac's On the Road to Thelma and Louise. Susan Stinson's Venus of Chalk is a road book unlike any other.
The heroine, Carline, is a domestic goddess for the new millenium. In other words, she is frustrated (as any true goddess would be) by the marginalized role that her awesome accomplishments play. In some ways she has the life she wants—a solid and passionate partnership with Lillian, a poet, who is also a woman of size and appreciates Carline's voluptuous body. Carline's job as an administrator in a home extension program includes a labor of love, editing The Modern Homemaker, pamphlets for subscribers on five continents.
Anxiety enters Carline's life when she has to deal with the public harassment about her size in the neighborhood where she lives, when she travels between her nest at home and her refuge at work. After a traumatic encounter with a bunch of teenaged boys, she finds herself retreating into an old, terrifying habit of hurting herself physically to deal with the exterior pain. In need of healing herself, something resonates with her when her beloved aunt calls to say that her best friend has died.
Carline's favorite bus driver happens to offer his regular passengers a spur-of-the-moment, unofficial (and cheap) cross-country trip the next day, when he drives the aging bus to be auctioned in Dallas, Texas. Carline makes a radical, spur-of-the moment decision to go home to Chalk, Texas for a visit. Surprising even herself, she impulsively quits her job.
"There was a gasp in my voice as I said it. The shock of loss hit me even before I hung up. I was leaving friends stranded in half finished work and abandoning years of fiercely defended procedures on the strength of bearable pain and an invitation to take a ride. Steadying my hands on the edge of the desk, I reminded myself of the dip I had created from peanut butter and salsa. Succumbing to impulse sometimes yielded good results. I knew I had to go. Neither velcro nor the zipper would have been invented if someone hadn't turned from the fine-stitched slit of the buttonhole." (from Venus of Chalk)
She informs her stunned lover that she needs to take a few weeks to console her aunt and climbs aboard the bus with a camp box of provisions, a sewing bag and her Amelia Earhart suitcase.
As Carline travels into the heartland of Texas with two men whom she scarcely knows, she sews and takes notes for a new pamphlet to be entitled How to Ride a Bus. Humor and fear go along for the ride as the three unlikely traveling companions venture into a world where puzzles are unlocked. Anxiety, unexpected beauty, and revelation simmer beneath the quiet reserve of the town where Carline grew up and the people who knew her as a child.
The road trip itself is a journey into self. Stepping away from daily routines and traveling in hot climates strips off layers of convention along with layers of illusion. Stinson's elegant and sensuous prose reveals the sensuality, sense of menace and revelation, even in ordinary things.
The twists, turns and surprises along the way are many and unpredictable. Those familiar with Stinson's earlier acclaimed novels Fat Girl Dances with Rocks and Martha Moody will be happy to be reacquainted with her elegant prose, sharp humor and inventive plotting. But Venus of Chalk offers rewards and pleasures that are all its own, along with a satisfying story.
Venus of Chalk is published by Firebrand Press.
Susan Stinson herself has an online journal which can be accessed at www.livejournal.com/~susanstinson/.
© Lynne Murray