Review by JR Foley
Girl Beside Him
Like William Faulkner with Sanctuary, Cris Mazza set out with Girl Beside Him to reach a wider audience with a potboiler of sex-and-violence, BUT -- could not help doing her best to go far beyond those intentions. So this novel of a sex killer in the making turns into a first-rate action-study of a particular configuration of sex-and-violence in a particular time and place.
Sanctuary depicts Prohibition Mississippi, Girl Beside Him post-Reagan Wyoming, with a detail and feel for the physical and human landscape as convincing in the latter as in the former. (A portion appears in FlashPøint Web Issue 1.) Brian Leonard, a wildlife biologist who "never finished," substitutes for an injured friend on a grant to track a dozen sterilized and tagged cougars relocated from Southern California to the wide open spaces of central Wyoming. By helicopter and on foot Brian homes in on the electronic tags to watch and record details of the animals' "adjustment." For extra money under the table from neighboring ranchers he also shoots coyote; but not for the money alone. Only when shooting – usually on a shooting range – does he feel in control of his agitating sexual attraction to fantasies of murdered girls. How this attraction developed from the instant of his sister's suicide is a dynamic he stalks as he stalks coyote and cougar until -- what else? -- a big showdown. But a showdown would not be possible without a woman to kill or not to kill. So from a classified ad he hires Leya Karney, a San Diego Zoo animal trainer in recovery from a nasty divorce. She's small and boney, in contrast to Brian's large muscularity, talks much too much, is quick to take post-feminist offense, more than shocked to discover he kills animals besides studying them, and of course is as attracted to him as she is repelled, and never stops nagging to nurse whatever ails him.
She is certainly a test, as comic as she is dangerous. But she is not Brian's only test. There is one cougar in particular he follows, and there is the wealthy horse-rancher who wants him to kill it because it has eaten a prize thoroughbred foal being raised for derby racing. As incentive the rancher offers money and not-so-veiled death threats. The unfinished wildlife biologist must face multiple ethical and physical showdowns – in fact, a multiplex showdown -- and Mazza does not disappoint.
On the one hand, she is obviously having fun with the conventions and stereotypes of westerns and thrillers: Brian the Lion vs. Ms. Carné (who may or may not be a good lay). Her wealthy rancher – always a stock villain – is named Harry Hathaway, just like the Henry Hathaway who directed dozens of Hollywood oaters from the '30's through the '60's. (For that matter, with round face, spectacles, and predator gaze he's also a dead-ringer for Dick Cheney, who used to represent these parts in Congress.) Mazza's wit is never far from comedy, as witness the stories in Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? (FC2, 1991). But to paraphrase an image from that book, when she fires a pistol that turns into a cigarette lighter, at the sight of the flame her target is likely, just the same, to drop dead – say, in the shock of recognition.
But Girl Beside Him is no farce. The satire serves an exploration of peculiarly American sex-and-violence, including an unexpected variety of incest. Brian is a hollow man who fills, his way. While it all started with his older sister's suicide when he was 12, it is the bizarre figure of that event that impels him. It's less a sense of responsibility than a horror at his pubescent response, whose deep sources might be as inescapable as the genes brother and sister shared. His concern is also less moral or ethical – even as a biologist stalking wildlife – than a desire to achieve some fundamental psychic integrity, in whatever shape that might take. Having "never finished," as a man, he wants to finish or be finished. A convincing emphathetic portrait of such a man would be difficult enough for any writer, female or male. But Mazza succeeds, and the measure of her success is how she brings off the climax her chosen genres demand: a showdown orchestrating all the characters and the peculiar twists of their several themes in a decisive encounter as masterfully uncontrived as it is inevitable: complex, clear, understated, and powerful.
Cris Mazza's Girl Beside Him is now available from FC2.