Review: Stephanie Ash's The Annie Year
by Kayla Rae Whitaker
THE ANNIE YEAR by Stephanie Ash
Unnamed Press, October 2016
Stephanie Ash’s The Annie Year (Unnamed Press, October 2016) has all the components of novels I like: strong, conflicted women, small town perils (lethargy, meth), youth that do things like ruin annual high school musicals. But The Annie Year is so much more than the sum of its parts; it is a wild animal in your hands, and one isn’t quite sure, even at its conclusion, whether or not the animal wants to cuddle or kill. I mean this to be the highest compliment.
The Annie Year is the story of Tandy Caide, CPA, local upstanding businesswoman, faithful member of the Order of the Pessimists and Chamber of Commerce in an unnamed Iowa town, where she inherited her long-dead father’s accounting firm. Here, a meth explosion takes place on a regular basis, leaving whole blocks to smell like “cat pee and battery acid.” Half the lights on the Country Kitchen sign are burnt out, leaving CUNT ITCHEN. She lives with her husband, a severely obese bus driver, in a cottage she also inherited from her father (which, in the words of his best friends, was painted “shit brown to match the color of his soul”). Despite chances to leave, Tandy remained home at the behest of her father, who went so far as to purchase her a burial plot next to his, complete with a headstone. “For the people in this town,” Tandy tells us, “feelings of satisfaction and resignation are often present in the same sigh.”
The narrative is a close telling; Tandy presents her story to us, an audience she presumes to be a sophisticated crew living “in your big cities where life’s pleasures are open to you like a 24-hour supermarket.” Upon viewing Children of the Corn, she reflects, “The idea that children should worship an evil force in a cornfield was absurd. But the idea that children would murder the members of their community made a certain kind of sense to me.” A more direct appraisal: “My husband bought a hot tub,” Tandy says. “I will stew here until I die.” Everything changes with the arrival of a ponytailed, man-clog-shod Vo-Ag teacher. He and Tandy begin meeting illicitly; their first date is to the local bowling alley, where he bowls a 258. “I had never been more attracted to anyone in my entire life,” Tandy reports. “It was like he bowled directly into my ovaries.”
She assures us: “We did it hundreds of ways I’m not sure even you people in your towns closer to the river have figured out, despite your pornographic video stores and your easily accessible Internet.” The Vo-Ag teacher revitalizes a sense of hope, if not for the town entire, then for the local high school students – the town’s youth a troubled crew “like that woman sitting on the swing on Hee Haw, Kenny Rogers’s wife, pretending to be a virgin with her breasts popping out of a tightly wound corset and the entire audience in on the joke.” Tandy, despite herself, is swept away. “I am capable of surprise,” she marvels. “I am capable of seeing interesting things and enjoying those interesting things. And I was suddenly and inexplicably proud of this.” Of course, none of these events come to a good end: not the Vo-Ag teacher, not Tandy’s romance. And not Tandy’s already well-frayed relationship with her town, and those within it. “Do you know what they do in this town to anyone who
thinks she is something special?” she tells us. “They eat her for lunch.”
The plot itself is worthy of praise – quick and genuine and defiant of expectation. But the real charm of The Annie Year operates beyond the plot points. Ash has a gift for creating nuance – a very specific body feel is achieved upon reading, the sense of moving through a low-lit rec room, quirky and queasy in turns. In anticipation of a kiss, Tandy “knew that eventually his mouth would be on mine, large but hollow, like a wet plastic bag over my face.” When a character laughs, ”he started to shake all over in that way the men around here laugh, that way that could also be crying but isn’t because eventually they look up at you to see if you are in on the joke.” Another character laughs with “the repeated toilet flushing of her snickers.” Rarely is language this satisfying.
There, too, is a pleasantly eerie ambiance to the narrative, as if it takes place in the stymied, smoke-filled home of a grandparent. A local bar: “The Valkyrie walls are carpeted from floor to ceiling with red shag, so it was like walking around in a giant red ashtray.” Even the cultural references are spookily dated, mirroring a stagnating town post glory-days. Tandy’s favorite commercial: an ad for Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers from 1987 (this can be found on YouTube, but it is recommended that you read Ash’s descriptions first, as they’re better than the actual ad). A particularly handsome boy is said to look like Scott Baio (or specifically, Cha Chi).
The Annie Year is funny, but it is a funny with unusual pathos – a humor that pays full, painful homage to sadness, to the feeling of being stuck in a town, a life, a body. Humor and sadness, combined, punctuate one another. And the book’s most striking theme – the malaise of a woman in this time and place, particularly when surrounded by those who have known you, and expected a certain code of behavior from you, as daughter, wife, neighbor, your entire life – is also an undertow, but an extremely powerful one. “The rules are clear here,” Tandy tells us. “If you fuck with little girls, they send you to jail for up to 15 years.” But “you can fuck with little girls in a lot of other non-sexual ways that the rules aren’t clear on. This I know all too well. There are so many ways to fuck with little girls here, and so few ways to help them recover from it.”
About the Reviewer:
Kayla Whitaker holds an MFA in fiction from New York University, and her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, BODY, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly and others. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, she recently appeared alongside such luminaries as Lynyrd Skynyrd as a commentator in the History Channel’s southern culture documentary You Don’t Know Dixie. Originally from Eastern Kentucky, she currently lives in New York. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Random House in January 2017.
October 2016 | $16.00