Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke

Sister Golden Hair: A Novel BY Darcey Steinke. Tin House Books. Paperback, 336 pages. $15.
The cover of Sister Golden Hair: A Novel

In 1999, I spent my eighth-grade spring break with my mother, visiting my aunt in Rockville, Maryland. In a never-repeated experiment, my father and younger sister went on a separate vacation to Disney World. While they rode the Tower of Terror, we spent our days on the clean, empty Metro as my mom, who had lived on O Street during her first marriage in the 1970s, showed me around the city. One afternoon we went to the Tower Records in Foggy Bottom, where I found Jesus Saves by Darcey Steinke. Its yellow cover bore a black line drawing of a bikinied woman—a girl, really—in a Christlike pose, her torso entwined with a thorny vine and hashmarked with stitched-up scars, one right where her left breast should have been. A tiny unicorn head, irate and bloodthirsty, bloomed at the center of her forehead. The book’s epigraph, a verse from Revelations, described a “woman given two wings of a great eagle,” and the first line was irresistible: “Oh she was high as they flew nowhere in particular in Ted’s white Ford with the harelip fender.” I had never been high or flown in a Ford, but I felt the buzz of recognition: This was the book that would take me there. My mom bought me Jesus Saves and I entered the stormy universe of Darcey Steinke’s fiction, where adolescent girls dream fantasy lives in a landscape fraught with menace and joy.

Many authors bounce the sacred and profane against each another; Steinke blasts them together with the intensity of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Cathedral-like in scale and ambition, Steinke’s oeuvre shares a project mission with the LHC: the pursuit of total knowledge of the unseen world. For the author who has remarked that she considers glamour “a sort of secular divinity,” this fact-finding mission takes the form of careful curation of rituals for beautifying the body and soul. Her protagonists apply homemade beauty treatments of mayonnaise, peanut butter, and cider vinegar, and improvise ad-hoc prayers to the dead, the imagined, and the cool girls at school—all with equally rapt intensity.

Over the course of five novels (she has also published a memoir, 2007’s Easter Everywhere, and co-edited the 1997 essay collection Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited with Rick Moody), Steinke has sought to map and elevate the soul of her protagonists, usually female seekers overlooked by their thick-skinned, even-keeled peers. Sensitive to a fault and frighteningly perceptive, the women in Steinke’s books use the world’s indifference to their advantage, going deep undercover at girlhood HQ. Part detective, part medium, part anthropologist, the Steinke heroine is pure bleeding whip-smart heart—voracious for pleasure but too wise to look away from ugliness. In her new novel Sister Golden Hair, the off-kilter quest Steinke has chronicled across her body of work gains a unifying voice through a meditative consideration of quotidian minutiae.

The book begins in 1972. Jesse is the twelve-year-old daughter of an idealistic and recently defrocked pastor and his desperately unhappy wife. She currently lives with her parents and younger brother at the Vagabond Motor Lodge, where they wait to move into their leased duplex in a Roanoke, Virginia, subdivision called Bent Tree. The deposit has been paid, but the previous tenant refuses to leave for fear of her stalker, an abusive ex who has threatened to murder her. Locked in the pressure-cooker motel room whose $19.95-a-night rate her family will soon be unable to afford, Jesse turns her sharp attention to her mother’s misery (which she rates throughout the novel on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest), her distant father’s preoccupation with discovering the true nature of God, and the trappings of her run-down roadside world, where signs deliver messages like “SIN KNOCKS A HOLE IN YOUR BUCKET OF JOY.”

Throughout Sister Golden Hair, Jesse’s peculiar perspective infuses the grotesque with kawaii sentimentality, a collision of tenderness and terror that illuminates the stakes of her world. Whenever things get too bleak, Jesse’s off-kilter appreciation of the weird and the awkward pipes up and reminds her of humor and loveliness. The Roanoke mall boasts a section called the French Quarter, “where rich ladies bought little white tennis dresses,” Jesse swoons, “and Mrs. Smith told me that the port-wine cheese at the Gourmet Shoppe was the most divine thing she’d ever tasted.” The echoes of Steinke’s own childhood as described in Easter Everywhere give her portrayal of social upheaval in ’70s Virginia teeth; here, everyone is lost, reckless, and more than a little crazy. Jesse’s memories of the rectories and churches where she spent her early childhood as a pastor’s daughter are bittersweet and gone forever. The magic of the past recedes in deference to the brutality of knowledge, and Jesse is caught in the middle, temptress and tempted, Adam and Eve both. “The church with the eternal light on the dark altar […] the deep organ chords moving into my room and around my bed, that place and time was a sort of heaven, the end not the beginning of the fairy tale.”

Jesse’s father is sweetly cerebral and lovable, but so self-absorbed and overworked that he fails to see his children’s hunger for stability as a longing for the divine he once represented to them. When Jesse’s mother—a woman trapped between the June Cleaver she was raised to become and the wealthy cosmopolite she dreams of being—finds a friend with whom she can entertain visions of a more luxurious life, her thrill of companionship and recognition is so great that, in one of the book’s most awful scenes, she doesn’t hesitate to throw her own daughter under the bus.

Jesse hurls herself into her friendship projects with an intensity that belies the impact of her disheartening realizations about her family. Sheila, a cool classmate Jesse admires and apes throughout the book, “moved in a flock of shiny-haired girls […] like jewels dropped in the muddy hallway waters,” but Jesse’s appreciation never allows her to ignore the cost of such beauty; Sheila and her friends “looked so much alike it was hard to tell one from another.” Jill, her spectral neighbor, is a better match for Jesse’s idiosyncratic sensibility; she “felt all the people in Bent Tree had known each other in earlier lives” and conducts séances in the French Quarter bathroom.

The book is organized in five sections, each named after a character Jesse longs for, studies, and emulates in her attempts to become, paradoxically, more herself. Despite her tendency to get hung up on other girls, Jesse is, unlike her mother, an inveterate individual, seemingly incapable of following; while her classmates are obsessing over boys and skincare, she lugs around The Big Book of Burial Rites, self-sabotaging her attempts at popularity by dispensing factoids such as “When a child dies in the Vinto tribe they wrap it in leaves and send it down the river in a basket woven from dried flower stems.” Through her experiences of these relationships—the most intense is Jesse’s friendship with Jill, who becomes both Jesse’s last portal to the divine and her first experience of nonfamilial love—Steinke demonstrates her protagonist’s flinty, independent commitment to discerning the nuances of her own character. Reflecting on her attraction to a boy named Dwayne late in the book, Jesse thinks with surprise: “It was like he’d found a trapdoor at the back of my head.” For most of Sister Golden Hair, Jesse wants to be someone—anyone—else, but she can never wholly depart from the pleasure of her own subjectivity, the force that moves Sister Golden Hair forward.

Unlike more twee practitioners in the emerging genre of fiction in which women’s epiphanies are portrayed as surreal events, Steinke always deploys prettiness and violence to clear ends: Her heroine is in the process of self-realization, which empowers by stripping away the comforting trappings of childhood. Jesse shares a name with the protagonist of Steinke’s second and perhaps darkest novel, Suicide Blonde (1992), the story of an erotic seeker on a tour of the San Francisco demimonde. The world tells women that they can be a unicorn princess or a sexily dangerous fatale, but Steinke discards the dichotomy in favor of a dazzling gradient of possible selves. This little girl’s happy ending, Steinke tells us, could easily be everyone else’s worst nightmare.

Lisa Locascio’s fiction and criticism has recently appeared in n+1, The Believer, Salon, and Tin House. She lives in Los Angeles.