Girl Trouble
by Holly Goddard Jones
Harper Perrenial, 324 pp., $14.99

Rumor has it that the stories in Girl Trouble, Holly Goddard Jones’ debut collection, are retellings of ancient Roman tragedies. Well, the evidence is certainly there. All the stories are set in or just outside of the fictional town of Roma, Kentucky, and several of them actually nod directly to Roman tragedy, as when a mother grieving the murder of her daughter likens her to Lavinia from Titus Andronicus. Other stories simply reference characters or ideas of the ancient world. But you don’t need to be up on your Roman mythology to fall under the spell of these dark, beautiful stories. All by themselves, and all allusions aside, the stories in Goddard Jones’ debut are, in a word, haunting.

The collection opens with “Good Girl,” a story about Jacob, a widower whose son has been charged with the rape of a fifteen-year-old-girl. For the years since his wife died, Jacob has been stranded in his life, his only companions the no-good son who comes and goes as he pleases without offering his father the love he deserves, and the dog the son brought home on a whim and then refused to take care of. Jacob struggles to understand what his responsibilities are to both of them. Eventually, he sees things about his child that no parent should have to see. This, in essence, is what all of the characters in this book experience, in some form or another: a view of the world that stuns them either into movement or stasis.

“Life Expectancy,” the story of the high-school basketball coach who is not only sleeping with one of his players, but has gotten her pregnant, also deals with the difficulties of parenthood. And marriage. Theo is, of course, married with a child. Goddard Jones complicates the story even more with the revelation that the child, an infant daughter, has been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Theo’s struggle to do the right thing—by Josie, the girl he’s been having the affair with, by his family, and by himself, is wonderfully rendered against the backdrop of adolescence, complete with lockers and basketball drills, but then juxtaposed with the tragedy of family life, as in the scene where Theo comes home to a dirty house and the discovery that the family dog has been accidentally poisoned. The exploration of morality and the complexity of the main character leaves the reader not sure who or what to root for, but instead feeling as torn and emotionally invested as Theo clearly is.

The book continues its investigation of parenthood and marriage with “Parts,” perhaps the most troubling story in the collection. In it, Dana is grieving not just the loss of her daughter, who was raped and brutally killed in her dorm room five years ago, but also the loss of her marriage, which ended a mere five months after her daughter’s death. The startling and truly impressive thing about this story, however, is that, finally, it isn’t as much about this woman’s grief as it is her loneliness after her daughter dies and her ex-husband remarries and reenters the world of parenthood: his second wife is now pregnant. When Dana speaks of “a woman’s loneliness, the way it feels to be childless and manless with nothing else to define you or drive you,” we truly understand the scope and depth of this tragedy.

Also included in the collection is “Proof of God,” the story of Dana’s daughter’s murder from the perspective of the boy who killed her. The story opens with an account of how he was bullied in high school, and a revelation that he might be gay but is too scared—of his controlling, overbearing father, and of his own inadequacies—to admit it to himself, much less anyone else. The story follows him to college where he meets Marty, his accomplice in the murder, and Felicia, Dana’s daughter, whom he rapes and tries to suffocate and then sets on fire. This story, above all others, reveals the pure, sparkling talent at work in this book. The reader comes away not feeling completely sorry for Simon, who does regret his crime, but feeling sorry for the state of humanity. It leaves us thinking about how difficult it is to be a person in our world, which this story assures us, is filled, always, with fear and confusion and, most of all, the desperate, often dangerous, need to be loved.

Two of the stories in the collection deal with adolescents who get a peek at adult life behind their parents’ backs—or in the case of twelve-year-old Ben in “Allegory of a Cave,” behind his mother’s back but at the hands of his father, who, upon hearing that Ben is having girl problems, takes him to see a strip show. In “Theory of Realty,” Ellen is thirteen and discovering adult life through her interactions with her best friend’s mom—more fellow teen than traditional mother—a woman who drinks and smokes and has affairs with married men right in front of the kids. Ellen also discovers adult life through the Hoffmans, the now-childless (their son drowned years ago) neighbors down the street. When Mr. Hoffman offers her alcohol and, in a drunken monologue tells her, cryptically, about how his wife is leaving him, Ellen at first doesn’t understand his “theory of realty,” and how “it’s all about location.” She pieces things together, eventually, though, and it becomes clear that this notion of trying to find one’s location, one’s place in the world, is the driving force behind this and several of the stories in this book.

The main character of “An Upright Man” is Matt, who is about to go to college but who, for now, has a summer job painting at the local plastics factory, where he meets Robbie, a big handsome guy who is terrifyingly powerful: “He was known throughout Logan county as two things: a hell of a nice guy if you were on good terms with him—a big, softy, really, who might clap your back too hard if he’d been drinking but was harmless otherwise; or a monster, a senseless idiot who turned mean on a dime and would trash anyone who looked at him funny.” Later, Goddard Jones describes him as a god, expertly setting up this notion of gods and mortals in the story, with Robbie and his girlfriend Tina as the gods and Matt and his girlfriend April as the mortals. The kids spend the summer drinking and hanging out and Matt finds himself fearing and adoring both Robbie and Tina, and treating April poorly. As Matt gets closer to all of them, he finds himself in the middle of a terrible moral dilemma (would it be a classic tragedy without one?). Because he is weak and desperate for acceptance, as so many of the people in this book are, he makes decisions that hurt more than help, and we find ourselves once again seeing the complexity of the human condition and wanting the best for everyone in the story.

Girl Trouble, with all of its instances of physical violence—beatings, rapes, killings of humans and beasts alike—as well as emotional violence—betrayal, punishment, and unkind words of the worst type—feels like a book of classic mythology. But where the classics sometimes leave us feeling devoid of hope and not understanding why certain things happen, Holly Goddard Jones’ work attempts to answer some of the questions about why we mortals, and our gods, behave the way we do. While some may say that at times the stories feel a bit obvious in their metaphors, the characters are always so rich that they rescue the stories from being too overt. These are stories about people being confronted by their lives and the consequences—sometimes not felt until years later—of their actions. They are not moral allegories about what is right and wrong, but exquisitely drawn pictures of very real people, young and old alike, trying to figure out those definitions for themselves.

TITA RAMIREZ has an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She teaches creative writing at Elon University in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Lake Effect and The Pinch.