By Andrea Portes
(Soft Skull Press)
If one could hear novelist Andrea Portes at work typing, I think the keystrokes might sound something like machine-gun fire: rapid, furious bursts of word bullets, aimed directly at the reader’s heart and wasting no extra ammunition in getting there.
Portes’ work first gained attention with her debut, 2007’s gripping coming-of-age tale and thriller “Hick.” The author is from Nebraska originally, but spent some time living in Texas, so we’re calling her one of ours ― and she does us proud in her follow-up novel, “Bury This.”
Set in small-town Michigan, this book dives even deeper into thriller territory than “Hick,” focusing on the murder of a young woman in 1979 and the 25-years-on reinvestigation that’s launched when a group of college students produces a documentary about the unsolved crime.
Beth Krause is mostly remembered as the ideal good girl: vaguely pretty, a bit shy, an angelic soprano in the church choir. But Beth’s thoughts about herself clue us in, a bit alarmingly, that her self-image ran far afield from the one she projected: “A young girl, almost twenty-two. With a white rat head of hair, albino hair, yes it’s a little stringy and washing it takes too long, it hurts my arms, what if someone else could wash it? Honky skin. White as paper. Almost blue. You see, a ghost. I get to be a young-looking sort of ghost with white mouse hair and gray saucer eyes and a stupid little nondescript form skinny and stringy and I’ll put a dress on me and no one will know.”
Know what? Well, that’s part of the thriller aspect, and I’m not about to give it away.
As the story plays out, we meet various others, including Beth’s best friend, Shauna Boggs, once the trampy-attractive counterpoint to Beth’s simple beauty, now a sometime prostitute weighing 300 pounds and consumed with rage and jealousy, for mostly good reasons. After Shauna’s mom left when she was little, we learn, her father elevated Shauna to household-mistress status, eventually in every way you might not want to imagine. (Warning to the squeamish: That’s not even the most disturbing thing in the book.)
Throughout, Portes creates woe-laden poetry out of things as inane as a workplace appliance. “Beth thought there would be something in that mini-fridge, something left, something gross. There always was. ... Those mini-fridges always a lesson in sadness, a lesson in neglect, a lesson in who-gives-a-(expletive)-anyway. Just leave it.”
Beth’s parents ― WWII veteran Charles Krause and his stunning wife, Dotsy, an Odessa, Texas, girl still able to turn heads and drop jaws in her 70s ― bear unhealed emotional wounds they struggle to keep tucked away. Dotsy, with her “sable hair, ivory skin ... and those green, almost emerald eyes,” causes one of the documentary makers to wonder if Beth “had inherited this grace? These willow eyes? This unassuming, intoxicating nature?
“If so,” he muses, “you could see why she was dead.”
With that sentence, Portes captures the fetid, dark essence of “Bury This”: some people’s seemingly unquenchable, monstrous thirst to destroy beauty. Amazingly though, in writing about it, Portes also creates something wondrous, like the glow of a single jellyfish, floating gloriously amid an endlessly dark ocean. (MCT)