R. J. Thomas, The Girl Who Tried to Catch the Man (Wild Shore Press, 2011)
Full disclosure: I know the author (though we haven’t seen one another in over two decades). In fact, I was the original drummer for Fuzzy Chickens…
The Girl Who Tried to Catch the Man is a confused mess. Now when I say that, I don’t mean it in a pejorative sense. I mean, that life is a confused mess, and so many novels about some nameless drone trying to find his (or her) identity come off seeming way, way too ordered to actually be reflecting said confused mess. Thus, The Girl Who Tried to Catch the Man being a confused mess is one of the things I loved about it… eventually. But we’ll get to that later. Enough for now for me to tell you that I know (or knew, pre reading this) not a bloody thing about Burning Man other than that it happens every year and a number of bands I have friends in have played there and that it is nowhere near as awesome as The Wicker Man (the Robin Hardy original, not that horrific Nic Cage abortion from 2006). I know more about it now (and it kind of reminds me of X-Day). I tell you all this because if you don’t know anything about Burning Man, don’t let that stop you from picking this book up.
Plot: Roger is a burnt-out production assistant in Hollywood who has decided to kill himself. (This is not a spoiler. The book’s first sentence is “I’d decided to kill myself.”) He’s going to do it in the most spectacular, yet anonymous, way he can think of; the only thing he lives for these days is the annual Burning Man celebration, at the end of which people sacrifice things (he never specifies, but it seems to be some sort of ritual of letting go of one’s earthly goods/attachments). So in addition to all his writing, etc., why not sacrifice himself as well? So he packs up everything, sells the apartment, and heads for Burning Man. But when a chance encounter at a gas station turns into something more and a camper of deranged hippies pull up next to him and introduce themselves as the Fuzzy Chickens, a hippy-dippy bar band who play Burning Man every year, Roger’s outlook on life begins to change for the—slightly—more positive. (He still won’t go see the “feminist art installation” about losing one’s virginity across from the coffee stand… nope, so SIR.)
There’s a part of me that wants to call this “recovery fiction”, christ help us all, because the trajectory here is kind of obvious: Roger has hit bottom, at which point the manuscript starts, and we see the shaky first steps on the road to recovery. (This actually fits in well with my main criticism of the book below.) But despite the fact that that may actually be what you’re holding in your hands, there is much more to this. Most of it is that slice-of-life kinda thing, but in confused-mess mode. I can get where that’s not for everyone, but it feels a lot more honest here than it does in the work of someone like, say, Richard Ford (or god help us Jodi Picoult). It feels like there’s a lot less elision, and that is a very good thing.
…when it isn’t a very bad thing. Thomas, once he gets into his groove, turns in a well-plotted little book that’s equal parts drama, comedy, Burning Man history, and mystery, well kinda. And he gets into his groove once Roger gets himself on the road to Burning Man. But before that, we have nothing but Roger and the stories he’s telling us about his life. All of which are meaningful later on in the story, and as I said above the narrative tone of the beginning of the book makes perfect sense if you think of this as recovery fiction, but ye cods and little haddocks I wanted to grab Roger and smack the living tar out of him at least seven times during the first part of this book for not being able to keep his mind on one subject for more than half a page at a time. Yes, I am willing to allow that this is exactly how someone who had just given himself over to planning his own suicide would think… and I realize the inherent hypocrisy in praising the book’s realistic take on things for most of its length and begging for some editing in the first bit. That’s not going to stop me from doing it, because I’m a dick like that.
In any case, this is a solid (most of the time) little novel that I can definitely recommend to you—just be prepared that the first twenty pages may have you wanting to throttle your narrator. *** ½