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When a lonesome cowboy named Red Grissom slides onto the bar stool next to the unhappily married heroine, you may experience a moment of narrative panic: Oh no, not that old story again.
In her debut novel, The Mineral Palace, Heidi Julavits quickly reassures you that she’s too strong a writer to be seduced by the clichés she toys with. True, her protagonist, Bena Jonssen, doesn’t much enjoy her “tinny marriage” to Ted, a philandering doctor who specializes in bedside manner. Nor does Bena relish life in Depression-era Pueblo, Colorado, where Ted has landed a clinic job. In that mean, hot-dusty town, whores suck bloody drippings off butcher paper and laundry gets dirty again the minute you hang it out to dry.
Bena feels hung out to dry, too, until the newspaper hires her to write a society column, giving her the chance she and the story need to plumb Pueblo’s secrets. She profiles one-legged Reimer Lee Jackson, who wants to restore the Mineral Palace, built to showcase Pueblo’s mining wealth and now a monument to moral and material decrepitude. “Reimer guttered along on her ivory leg, the upholstered nub striking the crushed and crumbling floor tiles. Bena looked at the empty jewel cases with their eviscerated velvet pillows and mouse droppings. . . . On the floor Bena spotted a broken plaque engraved with a question meant to jar the minds of children: ‘Is there water on the moon?’ ”
Might as well ask why Ted digs fishponds in the bone-dry backyard. And why does Red Grissom hover around Maude, a prostitute carrying an unknown father’s child (one of several mysteries)? Bena worries over a more urgent riddle: What’s wrong with her own baby, who suckles greedily but doesn’t respond to light or sound? Julavits, who was named a VLS Writer on the Verge and whose work appeared in Best American Short Stories 1999, uses blunt, sometimes unlovely, but powerful strokes of emotion and language to mine her characters; she wants to get at the dark source of the mother love that leaks out of Bena like breast milk. As Pueblo dries up, Bena overflows, and The Mineral Palace lets loose a tragedy of classical proportions. You don’t quite believe the course it takes, but Julavits’s story pulls so strongly that you’re willing to let it wash you down into the darkness too.