Powerful men can get away with murder…for only so long.
After a life of hardship, Mary Jane McCord’s life in Rapid City, South Dakota, finally hits a sweet spot. She finds happiness and her singing career takes off. Everything is looking up until she uncovers the dark and secret obsessions of two high-profile men.
Twenty years pass but the people closest to Mary Jane have not forgotten.
Will they bring the truth out into the light?
I had never read this author before and found this latest novel an unusual reading experience. Told in fragments, this is the story of a South Dakota town full of tensions and secrets. There isn’t even one main thread, but what links each fragment and each character is the death of MJ McCord. Mary Jane was as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, more beautiful even some would say. After a difficult and unsettled childhood with mum Marjorie, MJ’s life looks like it’s finally coming good. She’s married to a lovely man who’s older, but gives her kindness, stability and wisdom. He thinks that MJ is beautiful on the inside as well as the outside, and its that inner beauty that captivates him, because it’s a rare thing in his experience. His money helps her with a dream of becoming a singer and she’s just on the cusp of being known. He knows she’s looked elsewhere of late, but it’s her age and he can overlook it. Then he gets some devastating news, MJ goes to a party at the home of one of the town’s superstar football players, Jordan Pinault, but never comes home. It seems that MJ has been playing away with Jordan, they had a row and MJ picked up a gun. She shot herself in the head.
The fragments of the story meander around this event, moving back and forth in time, to people close to MJ and those with only a tangential connection to that tragic night. I’ll be honest and say that first of all I was confused. The structure and order of the chapters doesn’t always make sense and it’s only when you start to get closer to the events of that night, that things become clearer. In fact the sections in the second half of the novel, seem to fit together easier and make more sense. Each fragment is told by a different person, but not everyone uses their given name, instead using a nickname, or they have a Native American name as well as a more Americanised/Anglicised name for work. This confused me even further. However, when it does become clear it’s like a fog lifting. I’m guessing this structure was deliberate and echoes the confusion and layers of half truths around Jordan Pinault and Ricky Nwafo. They have hidden their secrets behind layers of money, respectability, knowing the right people and the hero worship many in the town still have for them.
This town only has a surface sheen. The author shows us how there are people who matter in Rapid City and people who don’t. Despite America claiming not to have a class system, it certainly does have a hierarchy and here it seems the Lakota people are at the bottom of the pile. The Lakota people are also known as Teton Sioux and live the furthest West of any of the Sioux tribes. The author depicts the Lakota as an integral part of the town, but a struggling one. One character remembers being told in school of the ‘Lazy Lakota’ and one of the Lakota characters hates seeing this characteristic in his nephews who sit around in a trailer, drinking most of the day. There is also petty criminality, such as small time drug dealing and theft. We get the impression that discrimination does still exist, in the job market particularly, which leaves Lakota families in poverty compared with the rest of the population.
There’s also a streak of misogyny throughout, with physical and sexual violence still the norm. I felt so deeply for Celena, a Lakota girl who is friends with MJ and crops up at different points in the book. We see her sleeping at parties when she’s younger, in rooms where her unconscious state leaves her very vulnerable. In later years we see her sleeping in the trailer she shares with family, despite the noise of the TV and the kids around her. My first impression, from her teenage years, was that she must be really drunk or perhaps experimenting with drugs? Of course this is other people’s assumption too. Back in her teens, men joke about what they could do to her in this state, and as a woman her family despair of her. In a section narrated by her Uncle, he finds her asleep in their trailer alongside her grandmother, with the TV on and her cousins drinking and shouting in another room. He marvels at how she can sleep in so much noise and calls her lazy. It’s only when we finally hear Celena’s voice that we find out she has narcolepsy, a neurological condition where the brain can no longer regulate the patient’s sleep cycle. She is so used to people not understanding or believing she has a medical condition, that she doesn’t even bother correcting them anymore. Having had secondary narcolepsy, due to having MS and a viral infection, I know how scared and vulnerable it feels to be unable to stop yourself falling asleep. I did it on busy trains, in cafes and even at the opera. Sometimes I could hear everything around me, but couldn’t speak or open my eyes. So my heart went out to her, because once when she feel asleep at a party, her best friend MJ killed herself with a gun. What happens when those half remembered moments start coming back to her?
The author weaves a complex story here and the best thing to do is not worry too much about whether you have the story straight. Just go along with it, from person to person and slowly the truth starts to emerge. There is an incredible sense of place, almost dreamlike in places, but a town immersed in the surrounding nature, especially for the Lakota. There’s a real sense of shabbiness, poverty and sleaze just below the surface. While Jordan and Ricky are just as culpable, the character of town counsellor Beverley Burgess made me feel sick and there were sections that are a hard read. The author showed how certain people become revered in small isolated towns. We know from contemporary cases of rape and abuse that in many cases, ball players are shielded from scrutiny and have the money to afford the best lawyers. In fact it’s this culture of hero worship that allows these crimes to flourish in the first place. There are always people who know the full truth of what’s going on at the time, but no one wants to point the finger at the star. Young ball players have those ideals of being athletic and good looking, popular with girls and can get to good schools with their skills. They are like the alpha males in a town, and ball teams become part of the fabric of society with local sponsorship and charity work. The ball players gain a sense of entitlement that can allow them to mistreat and manipulate others, especially girls who are blinded by their looks and popularity. There is an element of nostalgia and escapism for the spectators, reliving their own past glories or just wishing they’d fulfilled their potential when they were young. I would hope, in the wake of the #MeToo movement that some change has taken place with people looking long and hard as to why they hero worship athletes.
This novel takes a hard look at small town America through this one incident. What is it that’s positive in these small communities, but also what’s missing? If we liken them to areas in the UK, they seem like our old mining communities where the work that’s been guaranteed for generations dries up and people are left in poverty, unable to afford or aspire to university. Young people have to settle for the work that’s available or move away and in these areas there are many young men who yearn to be footballers, boxers, MMA fighters and young women who want to be models, singers or reality TV stars, because it seems more attainable than expensive years of university education. I thought the book was atmospheric, mysterious and complex. It wasn’t like anything else I’ve read this year and left me thinking long after the book ended.
Published 6th May 2022 by Friday Press
Meet the Author
Kelly Creighton facilitates creative writing classes and teaches English as a foreign language. She is the author of the DI Harriet Sloane series, two standalone crime novels (Souls Wax Fair and The Bones of It), two short fiction collections (Bank Holiday Hurricane and Everybody’s Happy), and one book of poetry. Kelly lives with her family in County Down, Northern Ireland.