Maureen McCoy takes the sinister and suggestive title of her first novel, "Walking After Midnight," from a Patsy Cline country and Western classic. She takes the book's sensibility from it too: true grit, with a side of sweet potato pie. Lottie Jay is McCoy's heroine, a good ole girl with a knack for nasty situations, a taste for whiskey and whiskers. She's just getting out of a sad situation when the book opens. Taping her diaphragm to the bathroom mirror, she makes a memorable exit from a marriage that is a long, drunken blur. No sooner has she broken out than she breaks wide open: A car crash on a country road lands her in detox, with more than a hangover to repair: "They say we're not supposed to drink again. I'm supposed to feel like I'm Liz Taylor. It doesn't have a thing to do with real life, honey."
To Lottie's horror, she soon discovers sobriety has everything to do with real life. "You know the feeling of novocain when it's wearing off and everything aches and tingles. . . ." Sobering up, Lottie finds she has misplaced entire chunks of her life. "I'm not used to just staying in a house making up things to do." By "making up things to do," she means "real" things, not the kind of fantasies that were her drunken specialty. Sober, she must either pursue her dreams or give them up. As it happens, her chief dream is to be a country and Western songwriter. Drunk, she wrote a ream of songs and stored them all in her panty drawer. Sober, she worries about their merit. "What if I had created terrible little fried egg songs?"
"One less bell to answer, one less egg to fry," is the "pitiful" song about lost love that Lottie refuses to identify with. Not for her the homely hurts and healings. She wants her songs, like her life, to be iconographic: "I liked clothes to satisfy an intention deeper than practicality, to be an armor. I had rustled into the hospital in taffeta plaid. . . ."
Leaving the hospital, Lottie Jay finds she can't sashay straight into the sunset. Building a real life takes work, and this news is too much for her at first. Peeved, although she might prefer "heartbroke," over the vagaries of a married man, she picks up a drink and, just like the country songs warn her, "falls to pieces." Getting sober the second time, the time that will stick, Lottie has to learn a whole new rhythm--no more gray days and black-and-blue nights. Instead, she finds there is a range of pastels to be dealt with, emotions too subtle for the gradations possible through a fifth of Jim Beam. "Through a glass darkly" takes on a whole new meaning, watching Lottie Jay lighten and brighten as the book unfolds.
If her heroine believes clothes should satisfy more than practicality, dressing to kill the pain, McCoy the author wears language with the same panache, wrapping her story in sentences with a style all their own. Sometimes she goes in for girlish froufrou. "My sundress was the color of grapes, mouth-watering beautiful. . . ." Sometimes she goes for the jugular: "Last night the wind had gusted around the farmhouse, and Judd lay forever propped on the bed, facing a loud TV, drinking." Pulling images from a cultural grab bag as overstuffed as her favorite Woolworth's, Lottie Jay dishes out a sassy-voiced perspective that is quite a tonic for a reader dined long and lean on the clipped, coked sentences and stylized emotions of the Manhattan novel currently in vogue among publishers. Not once does Lottie muse about snuff films, muggers, therapy or Bloomingdale's. Her dream lover is Elvis Presley. The town she lives in smells like oatmeal: "Cedar Rapids had a breakfast aroma, the smell was the start of a day not yet awake to complications."
In a year that saw too many novels about too few things, a novel like "Walking After Midnight" is just as refreshing as Cedar Rapids' oatmeal breeze. "Write about what you know" has long been a useful bit of writer's lore, and McCoy, nurtured at the Iowa Writers Workshop, takes it to heart, filling her book with Midwestern bric-a-brac, as poetic and homely as old farm implements, as powerful and as spare. Reading a book like this one, with a sense of place and a sense of humor, is enough to nudge awake the hope that American fiction is alive and well, just not living in Manhattan. Maybe it's just gone off somewhere, down some dirt road, walking after midnight, "anywhere, all hours. Standing still, you'd combust."
It is in her horror of "standing still" that Lottie Jay--and her author--step into new ground. For Lottie, it is a new life made up of small things: mint chip sundaes shared with a new lover; gardening shared with her landlady's son; the very first time she gets a song with a double internal rhyme, a triumph that she shares with her Elvis poster. For McCoy, it is a whole series of small and risky choices: a heroine who is sexual and sentimental too; sex scenes that tread too close to the funny bone for comfort; a hero who doesn't save the day but lets the heroine do it for herself, "one foot trusting to thin, thin air."
"Walking After Midnight" is a very fine book.