She Drove Without Stopping by Jaimy Gordon

Phew! I survived! Jaimy Gordon’s second novel, She Drove Without Stopping, is both dense and long. It took me 19 days to finish, which for a blogger trying to keep up on content is forever. Fortunately, I had some other reviews scheduled during this time already.

If Jaimy Gordon sounds familiar, it’s because I love and rave about Bogeywoman, which is also a dense book, but the main character spends most of her time interacting with some of the best-written minor characters I’ve read. Bogeywoman is also 100 pages shorter than She Drove Without Stopping.

she drove without stopping

In this novel, Jane is born the happiest baby in the world. It’s obvious to readers that something is amiss between her parents, especially the father, who likes to squeeze Jane’s bare buttock from the time she is an infant through high school. As she ages, her father sees her more as a creature that a person. The relationship is toxic, and I’m sure there are odd layers of sexual power battles in there to be picked apart. The narrator implies her father may be gay, though he’s a womanizer. It’s complicated.

Jane heads off to some “beatnik” college circa 1965 where she can’t sleep in the dorms, so she finds an abandoned house to squat in. Along comes a boyfriend, and it’s implied that he’s got a financial net from his parents, but he lives like he’s homeless. He’s an artist, man. Some stoners and junkers from the area, known as The Soul of Commerce, befriend Jane and her boyfriend, and Jaimy Gordon shines again with her secondary characters and their dialogue:

Felix says, “A chicken ain’t even a bird.”

“It ain’t! Then what is it?”

“Felix is silent for a moment, gazing at the darkening cornfield. “It’s a food,” he says. “Man done made it, just like a hot dot. Like baloney. It’s progress.”

“Don’t tell me about progress,” Willie says. “Baloney don’t run around a barnyard flapping its wings.”

Gordon takes us back to the tradition of people sitting on a porch and sharing what they know: stories, observations, old-timey remedies, gossip. These are the best moments in the novel, though they didn’t happen as often in She Drove Without Stopping as it did in Bogeywoman.

Another key difference is that She Drove Without Stopping is in 3rd-person. The narrator is heavy handed while trying to explain what Jane’s motives in life are. The last chapter is in 1st-person, and I felt like I knew Jane infinitely better in those final pages than anywhere else. Bogeywoman was done so well and richly in 1st-person that I felt a million miles away from Jane — and I didn’t like nor empathize with her. I do wish there had been less focus on Jane’s internal life via an omniscient narrator who almost seems to not know Jane.

The novel says a lot about how women and minorities are treated in the United States. Many characters Jane befriends are African American or Native American. She herself is white, but she’s the victim of power dynamics between men and women, authorities and women. When a strange man forces himself on her, Jane is not believed by the local police, who work to prove she’s a whore for hanging out with a Black man.

Given that it’s 1965, Gordon says a lot about that year without directly point out what happened in history that year. It’s a clever way of saying something without saying it. I’m especially thinking of the way I keep reading novels that are set in NYC when 9/11 happened, but 9/11 is only tangentially related to the story. Or, how many civil rights novels find the main character marching to Selma or at the March on Washington. Do they need to be there for this novel to say something about the Civil Rights Movement?

Although it takes patience and perseverance, Gordon’s second novel never made me want to quit reading, though I didn’t read for as long as I typically would each sitting. It’s a traditional Bildungsroman with the ending we all must learn — that we are just like our parents in ways we don’t want to be — but it’s all the people whom she encounters who make this novel interesting.

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25 comments

  1. This does sound like one of those novels where those secondary characters are at least as interesting as the main ones. You make an interesting point about first person v third person. I go back and forth on that. In the main, I prefer third person. But sometimes, as you say, you get to know a character much better if that character’s story is told in first person.

    • There are mentions of him not wanting to wear anything that might make him look “queer.” Since the book is set around 1945 to 1965, that might just mean “odd,” and regardless of his sexuality, he’s odd.

      • Hmm… trying to remember way back, I do think my dad used to use the word “queer” disparagingly in the ’60s, though at the time I didn’t really understand what he meant by it. And he was middle-aged by then, so maybe it would have been in use back in the ’40s, though not with the positive spin on it that only happened in maybe the ’90s or so?

  2. Ugh the description of the father makes me sick to my stomach! I hate reading about that stuff, I find it so painful. The secondary characters do sound pretty interesting in this one too though. I’ve read books like this before-you can’t read them for long periods of time, or they take you a few weeks to finish, but they are still worth it!

    • When I wasn’t reading it, I didn’t feel the need to pick it up, but when I was reading it, I was happy.
      I thought the father would be in the whole book, but when she went away to college, he was just the occasional phone call. When she was a child though, I kept waiting for something worse to happen. Then again, women are trained to think, “Well, at least he only did X. He never did Y to his daughter.”

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who hesitates to pick up big books because they impact on my blogging. As a baby boomer I’m also hesitant about reading younger authors who set their work in the 1960s – historical fiction to them! But it was certainly a period when fathers, and any other man who was around, exerted their power over girls. I’m not sure my own father ever mentioned gays, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have known what he meant if he did.

  4. 19 days is forever in the life of a book blogger. Sometimes I get stuck with a book and it feels like I’m making in very little progress. I end up making myself read more than I want or need to which isn’t always the best choice (it messes with how much I enjoy a book) but I feel like there is only so much time I can spend on a book before I need to move on. Perhaps it’s one of the drawbacks to being a book blogger.

    • If I weren’t a book blogger, I would put reading somewhere behind watching the newest season of BoJack Horseman. I would have even noticed it was 19 days because my brain would have just assumed it read more than I did.

  5. I’m surprised that She Drove without Stopping, being the second book Gordon published, didn’t seem to connect with you as much as her first. It sounds like her writing didn’t improve between books. That said, it doesn’t sound like her writing is poor in the first place– it’s just an interesting observation.

    Is this the sort of book where you already need to know about America in 1965 to appreciate what Gordon is saying without saying about the world at this time? Or do you think someone with limited knowledge of this time might still appreciate it?

    • If you have limited knowledge–that it’s scandelous for an 19-year-old white girl to be living in an abandoned house with her artist boyfriend, and that she deserves what she gets because she hangs around with a black man (even though it’s a white man who rates her), then you know enough about the time period for sure.

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