- Masks of Truth
E. R. Frank
336 Pages; Print, $17.99
I came of age roughly at the time that young adult fiction as a genre began to take hold. The Outsiders (1967), Go Ask Alice (1971), Flowers in the Attic (1979)—with their lurid covers and their tackling of teenage promiscuity, criminality, and drugs—were contraband in my house. Like any smart junior high student, though, I found ways to sneak the novels into the guest room where I could read in privacy and stash them beneath the cushions of the sofa bed. The irony, though, is, despite all the hang-wringing about the explicitness of these works, three decades later it’s not the drugs, or the sex, that stays with me. What I remember most is that Go Ask Alice was written in epistolary form, a series of diary entries. For the first time in my life, I realized that a story could resemble real life not just in its characters but the very form it took.
E. R. Frank’s novel Dime follows in the tradition of books such as the Outsiders and Go Ask Alice both in its realism and its willingness to take chances on the level of narrative and craft. The eponymous protagonist is thirteen years old, intelligent, an avid reader and very articulate. She is also a teenage prostitute.
The book opens with a short prologue in which Dime reveals that she seeks to find the right language for a note, the nature and urgency of which is not revealed until much later. As Dime wrestles with how to write her message, she moves back in time, retelling her own story, from her early life in the foster-care system to her introduction to the man who will eventually manipulate her into prostitution.
Frank smartly opts not to have Dime narrate the novel in a street vernacular in order to establish authenticity. Instead, she reveals early on that Dime has enough education that she can code-switch. Dime is writing the novel in “standard English” because she believes that this is the only way that she can elicit the sympathy of her intended audience. The novel, then, employs the most literary of literary conceits: it becomes a novel about the process of writing. That process though, for Dime is not, as it is for most of us, a simple act of creation or ratiocination, but an attempt to assert herself as someone worthy of being saved.
Dime struggles, as most writers do, to find the right story to tell. She adopts the personas of the other prostitutes she lives with, stories that she believes will be more compelling than hers, but shies away from hurting them by appropriating their voices. She decides to write instead passages of her narrative as allegories from the point of view of Sex, Money and Truth. The allegories present a neat doubling effect. They are at once sophisticated literary devices meant to demonstrate Dime’s intelligence and also a means for Dime to distance herself from the trauma she is experiencing. At one point Dime writes about her own vulnerability, in the voice of Sex, “It’s a game of mind…These young girls, they don’t understand anything except false promises, love, lies, new clothes, and a meal.” Later, in an even more harrowing passage, Dime takes on the persona of Money: “Now once we go from the track to indoor,” Money would explain in the note, “a lot more of me can be had. First of all, a john has a room with a bathroom and a bed in it. That right there allows you to charge more of me than when all you have to offer is an empty lot or car.” By using this trope, Frank movingly reveals the depth of the damage done to the protagonist. As hardened and knowledgeable as Dime is, she is also a child and a victim who needs to don masks to reveal what has been done to her.
Frank is also an expert at planting small details throughout the book, the significance of which...