The title of Mesha Maren’s debut novel, “Sugar Run,” refers to a gambler’s good fortune, and if anyone could use a bit of luck, it’s Jodi McCarty. The year is 2007, and Jodi has just been sprung from Jaxton Prison in the North Georgia mountains, after having served 18 years for manslaughter. Only 17 when she went in, she’s ill prepared for life on the outside.
The one thing that sustained Jodi during her incarceration was her dream of returning to her family’s farm in the mountains of West Virginia. Jodi grew up there, raised by her grandmother Effie, now dead, and her goal is to live there again and raise dairy cows. But first she has a mission to complete that involves riding a Greyhound bus to South Georgia to fulfill a promise she made to her former girlfriend, Paula. Before their relationship ended in a tragic turn of events, the couple had planned to rescue Paula’s little brother Ricky from his abusive father. Eighteen years later, Jodi is compelled to make good on that plan, no matter that Ricky is a grown man now.
Along the way, Jodi meets Miranda Golden, a beautiful and broke, pill-popping mama, who’s on the verge of being evicted from her room at the Rocklodge Motor Inn, where Jodi is also staying. Attracted to Miranda’s “high-pitched reactions, the way she poured it all out so openly,” Jodi agrees to help her newfound friend spirit her three young sons away from her ex-husband, a has-been rock star named Lee Golden, who’s playing a gig nearby.
Before long, the whole ragtag crew of new acquaintances are in Miranda’s Chevette, headed to the farm, where Jodi’s attempts to live a simple, lawful life in her dead grandmother’s tumbled-down shack in the Appalachian Mountains are challenged at every turn.
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Braided through the saga is the backstory of Jodi and Paula’s relationship. Set in 1988, it starts with the first, heady days of their meeting and falling in love, when Jodi was just happy to be in Paula’s presence. But disenchantment settles in when Paula’s gambling leaves Jodi bored and alone in cheap motel rooms all day. Their coupling is a sober reminder of just how little strangers know about one another when they enter each other’s lives midstream.
“Paula had been looping through her win-lose cycle for years, and Jodi, caught in the swing of it, had thought it was actually leading somewhere.”
Whether Jodi and Miranda are repeating history remains to be seen.
On the surface, Maren’s characters are not the most sympathetic bunch. Laws are broken and pills are popped without much forethought. But Jodi’s intentions are honorable. Watching her eagerness to make things right — to save Ricky, to build a life with Miranda, to live on her family farm and raise cows in peace — as it plays out against a world of dive bars, roadside motels, small-town carnivals and gas station mini-marts, is all the more heartbreaking as the cycle of poverty threatens to grind up her meager dreams.
Winner of the 2015 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, Maren is the National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution, in Beaver, W.Va., so she knows a thing or two about women prisoners and the challenges they face upon release. She is also intimately familiar with the people who populate this rural corner of the world. When Jodi’s parents throw her an impromptu welcome home party, her mother’s friends rise to the occasion.
“They had always been there in the background with coffee and sticky, starchy foods. At the scene of every disaster and celebration they filled out the edges of the room with their pillowy housedresses and clouds of smoke. By the very generosity of their bodies they comforted the children and men.”
Among the colorful characters that enter Jodi’s orbit is Rosalba, a tequila-swilling employee of the nearby “bunny ranch,” who rolls her own cigarettes and needs a place to hide because she “ain’t got papers.” Dennis, Jodi’s brother, is a drug-dealing redneck who races trains in his truck for fun and blackmails Jodi into helping him with his criminal activities.
And then there’s Lynn, a wealthy “tree-hugger,” who hosts fussy fundraising galas to thwart the fracking industry by buying up land as it comes on the market. A “dark butterfly” who wears diaphanous dresses and prattles on about Philip Glass, “the great inland sea” and blithely asks Jodi, who discovers that her family has lost their farm over unpaid taxes, “What does ownership really even mean, anyway?”
Caught in the divide between the haves and the have-nots, Jodi is a perfect illustration of the fallacy that good intentions and hard work reap success. She can’t even get hired for the most menial of jobs because of her felony. So she numbs her frustration with beer and drugs, and she does the best she can, tugging her heartstrings tight around her substitute family of misfits, each one of them desperate to escape their messy past lives. But in her effort to save everyone else, she risks losing sight of herself.
In the inestimable words of musician Kenny Rogers, a gambler has to “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” And ultimately, that is the decision Jodi must make before her future can take hold.
by Mesha Maren
320 pages, $26.95
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