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  • Female Picaro
  • DeWitt Henry (bio)
The Merrill Diaries
Susan Tepper
Pure Slush Books
202 Pages; Print, $13.00

Susan Tepper, poet and novelist, is a remarkable stylist, whose earlier novels accrue in surprising ways as flash-fiction or prose-poem cycles, and whose literary play (fragmented narration, lyricism, focus on verbal wit) takes us to the heart of felt lives. Deer & Other Stories (2009), is a collection of eleven stories, each of which has a deer in it and takes place during the Vietnam War years. What May Have Been (2010, co-authored with Gary Percesepe) is billed as “a novel in letters exchanged between the artist Jackson Pollock and his fictional lover, an alluring young woman called Dori G.” From The Umberplatzen: A Love Story (2012) is recollections of a past love affair, set in an unnamed German city in the 1980s, and charting the affair in words as much as flesh between an American woman separated from her husband and a German intellectual and parachutist. Tepper’s forte is characterization through written and spoken voices, and her core concerns are with relatedness, cultural and linguistic differences, gender, and an ambivalence between attachment and escape. One thinks of D. H. Lawrence’s remark about the Hemingway archetype: “He keeps on making flights, but he has no illusion about landing anywhere.”

In The Merrill Diaries, the diarist is a picaro, a kind of Don Quixote or Forrest Gump, although one who is female, sexy, and diffident, and who marries (or otherwise hooks up with) a series of Mr. Wrongs throughout her twenties. Her voice is 1970s hip, colloquial and breezy. She begins married to Teddy, who has just left the army and is sexist, aimless, and unemployed. Having gotten fired from her travel agency job, she grows bored with him, even though he is good looking. She has a talent for singing, and inspired by Ms. Magazine and the novel Fear of Flying (1973) (“where a woman leaves her husband to travel the world”), she decides to join a rock band, which brings its own problems: “It can be hell. You’re doing six sets a night ripping out your vocal cords, fighting off assholes in the audience during the break, fighting off the club owner assholes, even some of your own band.” Soon she separates from Teddy and moves in with Eddie, “a cute guitarist,” but Eddie is feckless, squalid, and broke as a partner. After a groupie sets Eddie’s apartment on fire, Merrill puts both Teddy and Eddie behind her and moves to England. She sells candy for work and marries Tom Spigot-Wheatley, a solicitor. “His mother wore a dress of navy-blue trimmed in white with a matching veiled hat. I found it a little dowdy.” With Tom, Merrill miscarries, but he gives her money to “keep singing,” having convinced himself that she had abandoned “a successful musical career to marry him…[and] once I had abandoned my art, no good could come of it.” She catches a plane to Greece, where she does more touring, meets Theo, another man on a ferry who hires her as a tour guide (“sex with Theo is good. Not like sex with Eddie which was phenomenal”). She feels like she is in her personal movie—a key motif—“the right film on the right sound stage.” Now her earlier lives seem “far off and distant.” But after a fling with a Dutch stranger, she leaves Theo and heads for Tangier, where she starts to doubt herself. “I’m pushing toward thirty. Plenty depressed about it, too.” She returns to the United States and applies to join a convent, but Mother Superior tells her to come back only when she reaches the point where sex is no longer a requirement in her life. She’s been in San Francisco, with Darnell, a Black Panther and jazz sax player, when her sister asks her to visit in Long Island. The sister is married to a Mafioso, and seeing their life as “a horror movie,” Merrill returns to Darnell but fears commitment and befriends Lena, a Chinese psychic, who uses signing to read to...


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