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Jill Malone’s Giraffe People (Bywater Books) is a rich exploration of character Cole Peters’s adolescent angst: difficult parents, irascible siblings, evil teachers, and then of course friendship, sexuality, and identity, the fraught trifecta of adolescent transition: God, family, and country are right behind it.
Set in and around Fort Monmouth, a once-thriving military base in eastern Monmouth County, NJ, Giraffe People, so-called because the Peters family are “stooped, long-legged, with a narrow chest and flat feet,” is the first-person narrative of sixteen-year-old Cole Peters, a wunderkind who excels in science, sports, photography, poetry, and music. She is perceptive, reads Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Filling Station” and tells us that she reads it “over and over and love[s] it a little more each go.” Cole is also a bit cocky, smokes cigarettes (occasionally), and is the rhythm guitarist in Doggy Life, a punk rock band that plays in bars and clubs up and down the Jersey Shore. Cole can also play Sega while doing homework. But Cole doesn’t know much about lesbians. “I don’t exactly get what has happened,” Cole tells us after witnessing a nasty exchange between her mentor/crush Meghan’s dorm mates, “but I know it’s bad.”
And then Heather Longhair says, “Sixteen was the longest year of my life…. I’d decided to be a virgin until I turned seventeen…. So like the last night before my birthday, I had sex in the back of this blue station wagon… and thought it was really romantic.”
They’re all laughing when the girl on the couch says, “Finger-fucking doesn’t count, but maybe she had one of those plastic dicks.” She says this like she’s talking to the television again.
Someone at the foosball table—I can’t tell [who]m—mutters, “Latent.”
But Heather Longhair says, “Which did your dad use, his fingers or his dick?”
And the girl is over the couch, shrieking.”
Cole’s army-chaplain father is not “happy here” at Fort Monmouth. The death of both a much-loved aunt and stepfather have saddened him and “his mother had a nervous breakdown, and still calls late at night crying.” Even worse, Cole tells us, “[…] I think he’s a dick who’s having an affair with his secretary. It’s the way he says her name: Miss Jensen, like it’s whipped cream.” That image, whipped cream, pops up a few more times in the novel.
In Fort Monmouth, Cole’s neighborhood “is all chaplains’ families, and on the other side of the base, in the lower ranks’ housing, are more chaplains’ families. We’re living on a post where three-quarters of the people are ministers…. Can you imagine anything worse?” (Well, yes, an Opus Dei academy.) But Cole Peters is not alienated by Christianity and she is unapologetic about her devotion to and admiration for her way of life because she is fully engaged in it. Cole is not a distant, indifferent observer; she is comfortable in her own skin—hormones aside. When she questions military and social paradigms she authenticates the social and cultural landscape she inhabits and validates herself:
I have doubts. I have so many doubts…. The old stories don’t make a lot of sense, if you think about them.… What the hell did anyone need a tree of everlasting life for—isn’t God immortal? If God so loved us, then why does he punish without mercy? Why did John the Baptist end up with his head on a platter? Service to God is not incentive enough, really. Service to God rarely ends up well…. I mean, who lets his kid get crucified? God runs kind of hot and cold for my taste, you know, if I’m being honest.
Cole knows there is no “spiritual perfection.” Among other human foibles, she sneaks out of the house and then sneaks back in after curfew smelling of cigarettes, pot, and beer. With Meghan she “can see that glow again as she slips her face to mine. I cannot stop shaking. I cannot breathe.” But Cole does not identify with any of the archaic terms of sexual orientation and preferences (bi, lesbian, butch, femme), and her experiences are presented as delightfully physical and hormone-driven. Cole develops an erotically-charged intellectual/creative relationship with a male skater named Bangs, but falls in love with the aforementioned Meghan.
Embraced by the Peters family, Meghan “is our cadet, my family sponsors her—she refers to us as her patrons—which just means we invite her for meals and outings, and take her shopping, and watch her play intramural rugby.” Meghan is the most unstable character in the novel. She is often tense and anxious, and so deeply conflicted and confused by her feelings and fears of being outed that she confuses and intimidates Cole. “I’m chattering too fast from nervousness,” Cole tells us, “because Meghan isn’t talking at all. The girl… said she. Maybe she had one of those plastic dicks. Meghan’s mad… and I’m taking extra steps to keep pace.” Cole is also wary about telling Meghan she is hungry. “I never think to bring snacks,” she berates herself, “or money.” As Cole processes more of what she witnessed in the dorm, she muses: “Oreo-girl insinuated Heather Longhair is a lesbian, pretty much called her a lesbian.” Meghan has told Cole that Oreo-girl “could ruin Heather’s career,” and Cole would like some clarification on how that would work: “If Meghan weren’t one notch below postal,” she tells us, “I’d ask her.”
Ultimately, Meghan’s character disappoints. She is flat and pedestrian—at times we get a whiff of predatory. She is caught in the self-loathing homophobia of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and behaves irresponsibly and erratically, signaling to readers that Meghan the lesbian is unstable and dangerous, while Cole’s heterosexual partners and friends are healthy and trustworthy. Cole and Meghan become a backstory, slowing down the narrative and disrupting the energy and momentum of the other far more interesting and engaging characters, and reflect a relationship that is rooted in sexual gratification, not friendship and trust. Juxtaposed to Cole’s friends and Doggy Life mates, Meghan is off-stage—at times absent or leaving before the show is over. “Bangs shrugs…. Oh Cole, Meghan had to bail. She had a migraine. I said I’d make sure you got home safe.” But as the novel draws to a close, Cole takes a stand and makes a statement:
This time, yes. And last time you were sorry, and next time you’ll be sorry, but Jesus, how about if you just stop?… You chose this didn’t you? You make all the rules. You draw every line. I’m just a kid, right? And so you can kiss me, but that’s as far as it’ll go. Unless you fuck me, but just the once. OK, twice, but then you can vanish and treat me like shit and atone for all of it, right? As long as you’re sorry, that’s all that matters. Never mind how many times it happens, or how much you want it.
Throughout Giraffe People, Malone’s dialogues are strong and natural—one of the best aspects of Malone’s prose. Her characters are articulate, witty, and accomplished—albeit a bit too incomparable— and with grace and integrity navigate the secure predictability and routines of military life and the allure and adventure of their futures.
Malone is quite skilled at codas and segues from one scene to another, often playing sharp physical surroundings against complex internal emotions: “the five of us in the windy dark not speaking. Every home lit up and cheerful.” She moves back and forth through time with ease and characters’ reflections and backward glances are vivid and seamless. Malone has drawn a vibrant diorama with many of the characters well-fleshed out and believable. Interactions with parents are plausible, although the animus towards teachers comes off as mean and not rebellious: “Overhead is Veronica Lake if Veronica Lake were in her sixties with a bad complexion and a habit of sucking her teeth.”
Although she is honest, likable, fun, and sharp, Cole Peters is an unreliable narrator. She vacillates, manipulates, equivocates—and is too good to be true: 3.8 GPA; varsity sports; musician and songwriter; she’s a poet and excels in photography. Yes, her team loses games (because she plays badly) and while hard on herself, Cole glibly moves on. Her position on difference and diversity is standard. After she is “rescued” by her Black basketball teammate Jayna, who “probably weighed 160 pounds… was 6’2” and not to be underestimated,” Cole “stopped worrying about getting jumped, and walked through the hallways like a human,” adding, some lines later, that “in high school, we form tribes of interest, and the girls I played ball with would have done anything for me.”This is simply lip-service to diversity; Cole’s ideas and attitudes about the Black girls on the team are just that—ideas and attitudes. The other side of the equation is empty. We never get to know Cole’s Black schoolmates or hear what they have to say. They are just teammates circumscribed by a basketball court or field of play, to be wary of, and protected by.
The band, Doggy Life, plays a prominent role in the novel; Cole and her friends practice and play together often and their sessions behind the curtain or in front of the lights become a stage for sexual tension and release. “The stage lights burn us… sweat pouring off their faces… I’ve shed my sweatshirt for the Doggy Life tank…. sprinting all over the stage… I dance with them…. Trevor uses a towel to wipe himself down.” Their energy is as high and electric—but might be the most contrived segments of the story, and the scenes on-stage read more like Cole is daydreaming than describing the set:
When we play Just Like Heaven I hear girls start screaming and the invisible crowd shifts on the dance floor beyond us. Under the lights, we could be alone, the four of us. Ernie, his shoulders hunched… resonant, and pure stationary except for his gliding fingers. Joe bounces all over the fucking place, and rushes up to scream random lines at the crowd… I keep hitting my teeth against the microphone, and finally grab it when I belt the lyrics, and let the guitar hang against me like a weary rocker. Trevor drums… We are so cool. No one has ever been as cool as the four of us, on this stage, with this wailing crowd.
Malone might think her readers will know the song, Just Like Heaven, or for that matter, that they know the music of Metallica as well as the cues and the subculture-context of heavy metal. This is risky especially if the author is foregrounding a specific song to enrich emotional intensity. In the band segments of the novel, the reader bumps into Jill Malone’s personal music preferences. Malone might assume that folks who reads Giraffe People—and I hope many do—know Tomorrow Wendy or Jane Says, but they might as well just skim over those sections, and that would be a shame.
I really liked Giraffe People but—and notwithstanding the level of cursing and swearing—it reads like a young adult novel, not adult fiction, and this is not a flaw, just the wrong genre. There is no doubt that Jill Malone is a talented writer. I look forward to her next book.
by Jill Malone
Paperback, 9781612940397, 112 pp.