There's no redemption to be had in Chelsea Bieker's 'Heartbroke'
In Chelsea Bieker's short story collection Heartbroke, the Central Valley of California shimmers at the edges with heat, desire, and desperation.
"The sun shines here in a special way...Beats harder and stronger than anywhere else in the world," says Boots, the narrator of "Raisin Man," to his illegitimate son Sims, a boy he loves but cannot parent. Boots sees the unrelenting heat as a blessing from God, sees the sun as a "natural fire in our sky" that plumps and then wrinkles the grapes he grows and turns by hand. Sims sees things differently. "My ma says it's the deepest hole in hell," he says.
There are many versions of hell in Heartbroke and many kinds of evil flourishing in them. For 19-year-old Alma in the collection's opener, "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Miners," hell is living under the thumb of a moody hydroelectric miner named Spider Dick, who proves to her that she cannot have "both a life of my own and the love of a man." For a boy named Pretty in "Cadillac Flats," hell at first seems to be the slum that gives the story its name, "a danger zone...where the people drank sewage water and babies crawled around snot-nosed and crying," though things are not much better in his neatly tended home on the other side of town, where his father drowns his war trauma with whiskey and his mother hides her bruises and her grief. Even escaping the valley doesn't bring salvation. For 15-year-old Bobby in "Fact of Body," hell is a beach town where the waters are toxic, condemned by a power plant leak, where he and his drug-addled mother live in their car. They sell dream catcher keychains on the side of a "slow-buzz highway," but Bobby makes their real money in the bathroom of a shack bar where his mother forces him to turn tricks.
Bieker perfected the Central Valley Gothic in her 2020 debut novel Godshot, which focused on the same damned landscape. But where Godshot comes to us through the voice of one teenage girl abandoned by her mother who must find her own deliverance from a sham pastor's "divine" vision, Heartbroke unfolds in a chorus of yearning and sorrow, told in 11 different voices that Bieker inhabits with perfect pitch.
Most of the stories are told in the first person and feel like they're being spun over beers at the Barge, where Alma tends bar. Bieker's opening lines suck you straight into the narrators' worlds. Here's Vangie of "Cowboys and Angels" getting acquainted with us: "I had me a cowboy once on a hot steam Friday night, on a hot go all the way time, just us together in his truck with old 'Angel from Montgomery' playing way turned up." I could feel the steam seeping out of that truck, could hear John Prine's voice crooning "Just give me one thing that I can hold onto / to believe in this living is just a hard way to go." The lavender-eyed cowboy is Vangie's "one thing," her longing for him so strong that she deludes herself into believing that he is a reward to her from God for her "patience." Vangie, who is "one sunburn away from old age," has certainly had to bide her time. She's suffered through her father's alcoholism that cost the family its raisin farm, through playing out men's fantasies on a phone sex hotline (the same one from Godshot) while "imagining my real life going on somewhere else, out of the valley." Of course, Vangie only has one life, and soon she sees that the cowboy isn't really a cowboy, and that his eyes have turned red.
In each story in Heartbroke, it's only a matter of time before hope curdles in the hellish heat. The reader can always see the consequences of reckless desire before the protagonists, filling these pages with the dread that comes with yearning for the impossible. Again and again, we revisit the central wound that animated Godshot, which Bieker herself "cannot escape," a condition she terms "motherloss" — a state of grief for a mother who is alive but has abandoned her child. Here, the hurt refracts into different shapes. There are women who have lost their own identity as mothers, like Lisa, the protagonist of "Women and Children First," who was declared an unfit mother by social services, her 9-year-old daughter placed in foster care because "alcohol was her love and blood force." There are sons, like Bobby in "Fact of Body," who cannot stop loving their mothers, even when their mothers continually choose their own needs first. Bobby longs for the woman his mother will never be, the kind of mother who would "find meaning in joining the PTA," but he also knows that he doesn't live in a world where "there is help to be had."
This is the reality all across Heartbroke — there is no one coming to rescue these characters, no redemption to be had under the harsh sun. While Bieker might not mend their broken hearts, she honors their pain and their undying longings, and will leave you aching for them.
Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.
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