The Given World by Marian Palaia, review by Bruce Jacobs
Marian Palaia's debut, The Given World, is a Vietnam War-era road novel, the saga of a young Montana girl's bolt from the family farm for San Francisco, "determined to beat the crappy odds and discover the Pacific" and to find some relief from the loss of her idolized older brother, missing in action somewhere in the tunnels of Cu Chi. Reminiscent of Sissy in Tom Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Palaia's protagonist, Riley, is up for anything. When seriously busted up as young girl from a fall off the farmhouse roof, she gets a taste of morphine, and after Mick goes MIA, parlays that into a 30-year trip of booze and drugs and sex--working odd jobs and living on the streets, in parks, in cars and the occasional co-worker's flop. She fixes broken-down cars, delivers newspapers, bartends at a lesbian bar, shoots pool and beds junkies and abusive losers. Riley's a mess and knows it; but in Palaia's very capable hands, she's a survivor and an admirable mess. After yet another self-rehab attempt, she recognizes that "climbing out of the ditch was a hit-or-miss proposition, and even though I was working on it, down was still a hell of a lot easier way to go than up." Not until she travels to Vietnam decades after the war and visits Cu Chi can she accept that Mick is not coming back. Finally feeling "something besides the all-too-familiar duality of rootless and pointless," she returns to visit her failing parents in Montana and encounters the now-adult son she left behind for adoption when he was an infant. Riley herself is no longer missing in action.
A peripatetic scholar with several degrees, including a University of Wisconsin MFA, Palaia knows the smells and sticky tavern floors of San Francisco's Mission and Castro districts; the desperation of "rockheads searching the sidewalks, picking up anything small and white... something that will make their a**-out lives feel worth living awhile longer"; and "Saigon's incessant din and treacly grime and sleepless lunacy." In Riley, she has created a character who believes in second chances--always giving the lost, the damaged vets, the deadbeats and queens whom she befriends enough time and rope. Though people come and go, Riley recognizes that each of them, like Mick, has infiltrated her life in some way, contributing to the person she has become. The Given World is a moving novel of an era that just won't go away.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.