Review by Anna Mockler
Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est La Même Chose
“This Young Girl Passing” by Donald Breckenridge
Time passes through us as we pass through time. Go see Rodin’s “She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife” for details. Meanwhile, teenage conversation is imperishable. I mean, like, they so totally are, you know, the same now as they ever were. You’ve been a teenager. You recall the breathless quality, the momentousness, the way everything comes at you with great intensity or else it has all the weighty importance of a torn plastic bag in the wind, that world where you feel yourself etiolated as by giant hands, your parents monsters, your future Himalayan, your immortality certain.
Donald Breckenridge’s prose beautifully captures this condition, these contradictions. His cram-jam, pell-mell style bursts through and into thought, sentiment, memory, heartburn, tossing them onto the page in skilled arcs, splashes; speech erupts and interrupts singing birds, waving willows, bedsprings creaking, a skinny joint of green Mexican crackling as it’s passed, a stream running, love making, bone cracking, light falling, leaves rustling. The story, the narrative, makes its way through all of this like a chase scene in an orchestra pit.
The story goes back and forth between 1976-77 and 1996-97. In the 70s, Robert hungers for Sarah. Sarah loves her high-school French teacher, Bill. Bill loves Sarah, in his hapless, married way. In the 90s, everything has changed and nothing has changed.
Breckenridge has set his story in Utica, New York, which has not really changed in the intervening twenty years. All those towns — Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Utica — have been largely unaffected by time’s passage. They lost their way back when durum wheat collapsed, or trucks replaced rail, or the price of oil soared, depending on whom you ask, and have gently moldered ever since. In a way, the story of Sarah, Bill, and Robert is the story of these towns. Most people come from places that they visit in adulthood, drive around exclaiming over how much everything has changed. You don’t do that if you’re from the I-90 belt. Things are, almost invariably, exactly where you left them. Falling down though they’re still standing, their foundations cracked.
The language in this novel reveals the fissures. “[Robert] looked down at her long legs, ‘Bill,’ and thought about how much he’d missed her, ‘will be lucky if someone doesn’t chop off his nuts.’ ‘It was worth it,’ Sarah turned to him, ‘and maybe one day you’ll be lucky enough to love someone the way I did.’ He placed his hands, ‘So you were seeing him,’ on the steering wheel, ‘while we were going out?’ She nodded, ‘Yeah well,’ and watched the headlights of the oncoming car, ‘you were more like a summer thing.’ The key was already in the ignition. He muttered, ‘Thanks,’ under his breath, ‘thanks a lot,’ and realized she was serious.”
When the characters face off, take a deep breath and ask hard questions, the prose decelerates to a walking pace. Mid-novel, there is a scene where Sarah asks Bill about a letter he sent her. Here, paragraphs are surrounded by white space, action and setting are separated from speech by conventional punctuation, characters speak in whole sentences, time passes in its old-fashioned, chronological way.
“This Young Girl Passing” is a drive through the streets of the past in the present, picking up and dropping off major and minor characters, conversation swirling over the bucket seats, while the driver notices every shift of light on every Queen Anne’s lace in every meadow they pass, sees in the close-watched present how the future will change everything, utterly, not at all.