I Hate Myself and I Want to Die

REVIEW — Amy returns home for the summer to the small Wisconsin town where she grew up, and she quickly finds that even though in Seattle she’s a confident, established woman, back home she’s back to her ragged, nervous adolescent self, back to a role she left when she first slipped off to the University at Madison, back to when she used to practice slashing her wrists. In Seattle, Amy works as a college professor and has a long-term live-in relationship with Robin. Amy describes her as “laugh[ing] a lot. For me the laughing went with an easiness of the body.” In Wisconsin, Amy finds she’s the family’s slightly out-of-whack sister compared to the success stories of her brother and sister, one a lawyer and the other a businessman, both straight and with families.

She quickly resumes the stalled friendships with her high school friends, Gina and Gavin. Gina’s a version of how Amy might have been had she been able to stay, a small town lesbian and a big time recluse. Gina is the first girl Amy kissed in her initial, fumbling realization about her sexuality. Gavin was Amy’s first and last boyfriend. Since boyfriends had girlfriends and girlfriends had boyfriends and Amy wanted a girlfriend and Gavin wanted a boyfriend, in the twisted logic of trying to fit themselves into their parents’ molds, they decided to be boyfriend-girlfriend. Naturally, things didn’t work out. Dramatically, Gavin disappeared, and Amy departed for Madison, and Gina withdrew from life. The town gossip says that Gavin committed suicide, and that Amy buried him somewhere before she left. The rumor speaks half-seriously and half-jokingly to the odd state of stasis the three main characters find themselves in at the beginning of the book.

Taking up with her old high school friends, Amy finds that Gavin has only recently returned from Chicago and hasn’t even told his family he’s come back. Gavin’s returned with a wasting disease, anorexia. In men, Amy learns, anorexia is associated with ‘severe gender identity problems.’ The creepiness of the textbook definition she finds goes on to state, “The occurrence of transsexualism, pedophilia, and homosexuality in anorexia patients give further support to the hypothesis of disturbed gender identity development in male anorexia nervosa … a good sign in the treatment … for male anorexics was sex, the more sex the better.” Gavin controls the only thing he can about his himself, his weight, and slowly destroys himself.

Although Amy has a corresponding problem (she cuts herself) and Gina lives a sort of hermit-like existence, the drama of Gavin’s anorexia dominates the book. If he doesn’t find a solution, he will die; whereas Amy seems to have trouble convincing herself that cutting herself is serious and although, Gina presents herself as a sort of withdrawn woman, she tends bar at the central lesbian watering hole and knows everyone. But Gavin fights against them helping him, and by the middle of the book, it doesn’t look like he’s going to survive.

Amy as a grown-up with a grown-up life and a grown-up way of dealing with people thrust back into the context of her junior year of high-school where all of this grown-upness doesn’t matter, makes for a compelling narrator. When she returns home despite her adult life and identity, Amy can’t help but slip into the life she had before she left. The same problems remain, and Amy is intent on resolving them. Allison Green handles the striking paradox at the heart of the book very well. The problems they left behind have spent the last ten years growing like tumors. The first time around, Amy’s naivete protected her. The nagging assurance of cause and effect and the cynicism of experience tells her that the cause will lead to no good end. I’ve often thought with my own growing bodily creakiness that if only I could go back to tenth grade knowing what I know now then I’d really have a good time in high school. In a real way, Half-Moon Scar takes Amy back and plays it out to its logical, creepy implications.

The elegant structuring of the characters relationships, and Allison Green’s spare style quickly and concretely imply an entire world. After a passage that reads, “If a person is careful, he can make a saltine cracker last for twenty-six bites. Or more. Something like an apple or carrot is practically an infinity of bites,” Gavin binges, and when Amy finds the mess it is difficult not to imagine his disgust as he scarfs this food:

A smell came from the kitchen. Like something burning on the stove, sweet and heavy. … There was something on the stove, a pot with amber streaks burned down the side. And under it was the open stove door, a charred pizza on the rack. And everywhere else, smeared and spread and scattered, was half-eaten food. Peanut butter, melting ice cream, wrappers from tubes of cookie dough, crushed saltines, a block of cheese with teeth marks, fish sticks, crumbled at the end of grease trails, chocolate syrup, raw flattened french fries on a tray, unscrewed Oreo’s.

However, at the core of the book, Amy and Gavin’s destructive self-hatred remains mysterious. The events of the book do little more than hint at why they both hate themselves and want to die. Talking about childhood games, Gina and Amy say:

“Red Rover. Swinging Status. Kick the Can.
“Smear the Queer?”
“Smear the Queer.” … “Little did we know.”

Amy doesn’t reveal any explanation at to why they share this destructive impulse. The only common point between them is that they are both gay. What about their experience growing up in a small town where boyfriends are supposed to have girlfriends and girlfriends, boyfriends leads to anorexia and self-mutilation? Male-anorexia is a rare disease, and yet from the story of Gavin’s growing-up seems to vary little from the experience of most gay children. Typically, a narrative of this sort would work toward some terrible secret, and then when the character reveals their terrible secret ala some therapy session or forced confession, the plot would be satisfied. Half-Moon Scar doesn’t operate in a world like this. The plot doesn’t work toward a revelation. The terrible secrets are all placed out in the open pretty quickly.

I suppose ultimately the story asserts that anorexia (or self-mutilation) can’t be understood. Regardless of weather the narrator places the root cause on a bad childhood, or a genetic disposition, a constant and utter contempt and misunderstanding, or some particularly brutal comment about his weight, Half-Moon Scar gets down the lasting disease of no longer being a kid. I feel relief when I drive past my middle school and know I don’t have to go there and sit at a desk and pretend to be like everyone else.

Half-Moon Scar
Allison Green
St. Martin’s Press
hardcover, 240 pages, $22.95

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