There are dear souls in Money Breton’s life whose elusiveness haunts her: Mev, her methadone-addicted daughter; Paulie, her son in New York City, who is recovering from a savage rape and living under police protection; and Flower Girl, her beloved cat, now missing somewhere in Mississippi. There’s also Belinda, a “small-minded, mean, picky-petty” film development producer at Mercury Brothers, who grudgingly gives her work.
Why Did I Ever? marks the return of Mary Robison, who would appear to have checked out for the duration of the 1990s. The author of Oh! and An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, Robison has an indelible style. She has attracted a cult following among the literati, who admire her acerbic wit, her brilliant economy of language, and her ability to evoke the shattered people of her fiction.
The new novel shows Robison in full command of these gifts. At once heart-wrenching and bitterly comical, Why Did I Ever? chronicles the irreverent musings of Money Breton as she strains to hold together the unraveling threads of her life. It’s a stunning work of unbridled honesty; from the moment you read the first passage, you’re riding shotgun with Money as she drives aimlessly through the South, randomly spewing odd, often hilarious observations and confessions—”Here’s a sign that reads: ‘PORK!’ Some signs aren’t there to make you happy.” But that uncomfortable laughter gives way to genuine empathy when she reveals the source of her anguish: Being a script doctor who is one smart-aleck comment away from losing her only gig is not what ails her, nor are the three ex-husbands she’s left in her wake. It isn’t her attention deficit disorder, an ensuing Ritalin addiction, or her suspicion that she has schizophrenia.
What plagues Money in this deeply felt journal of seeming non sequiturs is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and failure in caring for her adult children. Their lives have been irreparably damaged—Mev’s by drugs, Paulie’s by violence. Yet they are unwilling and emotionally ill-equipped to solicit their mother’s eager help, for both believe that theirs are unsolvable problems. This devastates Money, but she perseveres despite the futility of it all. “I am endeavoring to find my way, aren’t I? Perhaps I overlooked the exit . . . Or perhaps [it] wasn’t the exit to take. I’ll just journey on.”