Belle of the Ball
Katie Crouch’s freshman novel is witty and wise with a charming southern drawl
Katie Crouch is really happy to be home. She can’t remember how many cities — it was either nine or 11 — she visited on her prepublication book tour to meet booksellers and press, but it wore her out. “My only job for 14 days was to get on a plane and eat dinner and I couldn’t even manage that,” she says from her apartment in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, where she lives with her new puppy. “I missed two planes. I was hungover all the time, a little sick from all the rich food. I was changing clothes in the back of cars on the way from the airport. I’m incredibly grateful to my publisher, and incredibly touched, but by the end of the trip I was practically begging to go to bed.”
Such is the life of a new literary It-girl. Crouch’s debut novel, Girls in Trucks, is a coming-of-age tale with a distinctly southern lilt and is getting the kind of attention most first-time authors only see in their fantasies.
It’s the story of Sarah Walters, a South Carolina debutante who finds that the traditions passed down through generations of the Camellia Society prove useless in navigating adult life. Whether she’s getting into a truck with a beautiful good old boy or heading north to a pot-fueled liberal arts college, Sarah finds herself on her own uncharted path, one that takes her finally to icy New York City, where her southern manners are of no help.
Crouch, who is herself from Charleston (although she never quite made it as a debutante, started out wanting to tell the story of her own breakup and subsequent bout with “stalking” her ex-boyfriend. But what started out as an exercise in catharsis (“I wrote a really boring story,” she says of her first draft) became a nuanced and very funny novel about friendship, identity and love. And at its heart is a culture clash of sorts, between the North and the South.
Although she no longer identifies as a Southerner, Crouch maintains that there is still a separate culture there. “I don’t want to generalize, but there is still very much a southern identity. If you have Confederate ancestors it’s still a big source of pride there.” She goes on to explain that if Charleston were a woman, she’d be “very thin with carefully highlighted hair. She’s the kind of woman who wears pastels and never goes anywhere without her makeup on. It’s a very southern idea that women should be pretty and nice and let the guys be in charge.” Not that she’s peddling stereotypes. Crouch’s southern women are as complex and deeply human as any good character; they just have better manners.
Excerpt from Girls in Trucks:
The cold. It is always there. People from the South tried to explain this to the girl before she left, but she doesn’t understand, really, until she has to face it day after day after day. It is always waiting, gray and merciless, no matter how much she tries to wish it away. She fights it with sweaters and hats and her father’s coat, but the slicing air finds its way through the zipper and every open pore in her wool scarf. Sometimes, it wins; there are days during the first winter when she looks at the ice-covered window and finds herself unable to leave her bed.
There is a structure to her northern friends’ behavior that she works to decipher. Her friends adore nicknames. They are always on the move. These were not children raised on porches; unless they are getting stoned, they never sit. Let’s go, they like to say. Let’s head out. There is much joy to be found in heading out, in going somewhere different than the moment before.
They speak of Miracles and Mango and the Deer and the Squire and Fish. The girl finds out that Fish is a band spelled with a “ph.” A Miracle is a free ticket. Mango is a song. The Deer is an island. The Squire is a bar on Cape Cod. Eventually, she will go to these places. She will listen to this band. She will never understand what the lyrics to that Mango song mean.
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