There’s a story in Malin James’s new collection Roadhouse Blues in which a man we’ve just witness sexually harass a waitress then sneaks into his underage girlfriend’s bedroom window. This girl, Nessa, is enamored of Clint, too young to fully comprehend how dangerous he is to her. She loves and fears and desires him in equal measure. She is already used to his anger and has created little coping mechanisms to preserve the fairy tale she believes his love to be. After all, Clint has promised to marry her and take her far away from her parents and her “bitchy friends.”
“Clint looked down at her, face empty, like his love for her had drained right into the ground. He smiled slowly, but his eyes stayed blank. Nessa felt sick. He was mad. She’d made him mad… He smelled of leather and horses and sweat, and she focused on that. She loved that scent. It was the sent of him.”
Clint uses her, coats her small body in bruises that she gleefully images hiding in the shower after gym class the next day. Earlier in the story, the waitress Clint harassed thought of him as the Big Bad Wolf. Little Nessa is clearly Little Red Riding Hood but her ending won’t be happy or just. Their sex scene and the argument that follows make the reader complicit in this teenager’s ruin. It also throws the reader headfirst into the tangled mess that is abuse, desire and pain. There are no simple truths in the fictional town of Styx.
There are few writers I trust as much as Malin James. It is possible to wring the erotic out of violence and shame, but it requires gentle craft and rare talent. Malin handles difficult topics—sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse—with the deft, thoughtful hand of a professional. Reading Roadhouse Blues, I was always aware that I was entering a world I’d revisit for the rest of my life. More than that, I received a master class in how to create art from the worst of us, in how to mine the doubt and hatred and edge that makes sex so fascinating and ruthless.
That all of this transgression and sexual power exchange takes place in a rural truck stop town makes the stakes even higher. Malin writes on her blog, “I did what I set out to do. I wrote something that I’m proud of. I wrote a collection of twelve linked short stories that explore sexual fluidity and subversiveness in a seemingly traditional place.” She has every reason to be proud.
Roadhouse Blues is full of complicated characters discovering who they are and what they need. The owner of the greasy spoon is a gay black man carefully navigating his sexuality in an environment where the slightest miscommunication could have dire consequences. One of his waitresses learns that her boyfriend has died in combat and receives comfort from his widow, who had known about and approved of their relationship all along. An exotic dancer is magnetically drawn to a customer who has just learned that his cancer has progressed to stage 4. No one here is happy, not exactly, but they find relief and distraction and strength through sex. It’s a gorgeous reminder that erotica can be literature when it is brave enough to aim for more than just entertainment.
I keep coming back to Nessa and Clint when I think about this book. I know what it’s like to desire a dangerous man and not realize how much of a threat he posed to your safety. I know what it’s like to still desire him even after you do realize it. It’s a sticky, shameful want that I’ve always hoped to capture in my fiction but never had the steel nerve to attempt. Malin weaves something hot and unrelenting and real out of her experiences as a survivor to create fiction that pulses with dark life. Roadhouse Blues is more than erotica: it’s a fearless and cathartic collection that embodies everything this genre should be.
RATING: Just by the goddamn book.
DESCRIPTION: Welcome to Styx—a blue-collar, American town where people can do whatever they like, so long as they don’t advertise. From a 1950s diner to the back of a rocking Camaro, the stories in Roadhouse Blues reveal sex that is by turns romantic, raw, triumphant, and desperate. Meet two women grieving the same man, a bartender looking for anything but love, and a hot, brash newlywed who knows she married a cheat. The local garage is run by a kick-ass woman who gives as fierce as she gets, and the strip club is a place full of whiskey and smoke, where memories are exposed as easily as skin.
“In the end,” writes author Malin James, “sex is about people, and people have motivations, and sometimes those motivations surprise them.”
This is Roadhouse Blues. Surprise is just the beginning.