Paperback: 230 pages
Publisher: Spuyten Duyvil Publishing (September 5, 2014)
Review by Lillian Ann Slugocki
This is Feminist Noir
Love Highway by Stephanie Dickinson is a duet for two voices. It is a Rashomon-like narrative; two voices, two points of view, one story. A girl, Nylah, disappears after a night of clubbing in Manhattan. She is found in a trash heap, in New Jersey, strangled. A slight wisp of a girl, and a true story. The first voice we hear is hers –the girl who is dead. We walk with her on the last night of her life. The second voice we hear is Trinity, the girl who was there, who saw the whole story unfold, right before her eyes, and did nothing to stop it.
Dickinson has mastered the art of character; each voice is chillingly authentic. I recognized my 18 year old self, and the stupid choices I made. Hitchhiking on a highway at four in the morning comes to mind. A miracle I made it home alive, and inevitable that Nylah does not. Interspersed in her narrative is a back story, a love story– one that reveals her naivete and her innocence, her privileged background which is a counterpoint or perhaps counter weight to the second voice– Trinity, a prostitute, paralyzed by love, bound to her pimp.
Dickinson is at her best when the story turns on the tiniest of details– how something smells, how something feels, what is sounds like, what it tastes like. I will forever see the overturned carton of Chinese noodles on the floor of the Weehawken Motel, and I will always know how hot it was the day the pimp and prostitute hauled her body to a dumpster in an abandoned lot. I will always know the color of the sky, and the weight of the gym bag that cradled her body, and the geography of the empty Manhattan apartment where Trinity hid out after the murder, the shower she took hoping to wash away the stain of her life.
Pacing and dramatic tension work best in the second half of the book. Without knowing this was based on a true story, I still understood Nylah wasn’t going to get out of this alive. I knew that a girl walking alone on the West Side Highway, in a white mini-skirt, would come to no good. However, the fate of Trinity was always in question. Her pimp could kill her, too. Her foster parents could rescue her. Or, she could jump on a Greyhound bus and disappear. I wanted to see what happened to her. The epilogue is especially graceful as Dickinson circles back to Nylah in the morgue; confused, but not especially afraid of the cold room and the smell of formaldehyde.
The book is dark, but this is redeemed by the humanity, and again, the authenticity of each voice. We might be frustrated and even angry by Nylah’s choice to strike off on her own at the impound lot, or Epiphany’s stubborn refusal to leave her boyfriend/pimp, but we do understand them. They are human, they are flawed, they are real to us, and Dickison renders each of them with language and imagery that is both lyrical and damned:
“When they reached Cooper Union the club girls were clustered in bunches. The fish girls in their slippery hair and mini skirts stood smoking cigarettes, their shoulders draped by fringed shawls. Like silken fins. Silken was the word for them.”
This was not an easy book to read, I had to put it down several times; especially when Nylah’s narrative takes us to the trash heap where her body comes to rest, or when Trinity smokes crack to ease the horror show of the hotel room, just as the sun is coming up. But Love Highway grabbed me, hooked me, and wouldn’t let go. As a woman and as a writer, I recognize the need to tell these stories. I am happy that, in the hands of Stephanie Dickinson, they are authentic, even though as a reader, I am uneasy, discomfitted. This is not happily ever after. This is feminist noir, a real cold light shining on a real, cold story.
You can find the book here: http://www.spuytenduyvil.net/love-highway.html
Lillian Ann Slugocki has been published by Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Newtown Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, as well as Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Beatrice, THE FEM Literary Magazine, HerKind/Vida, Deep Water Literary Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Blue Fifth Review, and Non Binary Review. Her novella How to Travel with Your Demons will be published by Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015. She has an MA from NYU in literary theory, and has produced and written for Off-Broadway and National Public Radio. Follow her on twitter https://twitter.com/laslugocki