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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Self Made Woman BY CARRIE FOUNTAIN Shambles By Debra Monroe SMU Press 201 pages, $22.50 hen she was a child, Delia Arco, the first person narrator of Debra Monroe’s latest novel, was frightened by a Sunday School lesson about Judgment Day and asked her father if there was any way the two of them could “skip the end of the world.” In an attempt to comfort her, he responded that, “At the end of the world we live with animals in heaven.” “I didn’t buy it,” she recalls many years later. “People have direction only if they picture a hellhole to sidestep.” The same could be said for novels. And it is indeed the depth as well as the heartbreaking particularity of the hellholesreal and imaginedthat make Shambles a novel of both graceful ease and substance. Monroe, who teaches at Texas State University in San Marcos, has created less a story than a world, and Delia Arco is less a narrator than a kind of journal entry come to life, constantly distilling from everyday experience a complicated, ready-to-wear philosophy, moving through her days with a jolting combination of conviction and uncertainty, harried and yet trying to remain composed. And it’s not just her. Most of the characters we meet in the fictional and ironically port-less Port Town, Texas \(“there isn’t a port, you see? Just swampy land and an inkling of ocean, fifty miles a kind of vague dress rehearsal of what they wish their lives to be. Delia herself is barely eking out a living as a social worker in the local high school system, working with teenagers’ big, real, unat tended-to problems, trying, above all else, to properly mother Esme, the baby she saved $130 a month for five years to adopt. Then there’s Dannie Lampass, her new intern, who, as they say, has issues. As Delia struggles to ration out her time and attention to Esme, the needy teens, a small menagerie of neighbors, and her sometimes-lover Mike Cleary, Dannie begins insinuating herself into the picture. She shows up uninvited, maintaining an on-going, one-sided chat that mostly amounts to a weird free-association, dropping hints like bombs about her past, and speculating that Delia has come into her life to take the place of her recently murdered mother. She insists on calling Delia “Little Hoover,” a nickname she’d once given to her own mother, “because she vacuumed a lot.” Delia attempts to brace herself, and to avoid becoming a surrogate: “I thought: I am somebody’s mother. And I didn’t adopt Dannie Lampass.” But, at the same time, she can’t bring herself to exclude Dannie. As it turns out, Dannie’s story is the stuff of true-crime novels: Her parents were brutally murdered by her cousin, who believed that, because both Dannie and her sister were gay, the parents were evil. As Dannie explains to Delia, Someone raised him to think, you know, it was too coincidental one family had two lesbians. He obsessed about my parents for years, kind of like Hamlet waiting around wondering if he was supposed to kill his uncle. While a character with such a tragic past and quirky present could easily be drawn too broadly, Dannie’s grief indeed, her very presenceis so specific and complicated and palpable that a reader can’t help reacting to her in the same way Delia does: with a grudging kind of patience, an exasperated acceptance, and, in the end, with profound empathy. Delia feels a certain unwitting duty toward Dannie, but at the same time wonders what it is in her that allows people like Dannie to tumble so easily into her life. With her fierce, protective independence, we get the sense that, if it were up to Delia, she’d be raising Esme in an undisclosed location, in a bunker somewhere, safe from the mess of humanity. Yet when Dannie invites herself along, Delia can’t say no. She chides herself for this: A firmer person, Sage, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, would have given her a thin-lipped smile and said, `Some other time.’ People know when you mean No, Never, When rats fly. But I didn’t think of it soon enough. I said, ‘Where did you grow up?’ While this contained kind of hell is quietly breaking loose on the home front, Delia finds herself suddenly called upon to sort out the finances of her own recently deceased mother, who abandoned her as a child. She is left with no choice but to travel to Cleveland, where her mother died, and deal with the mess. And that’s when we enter some of the best-executed, most heated prose in the novel. Already broke, Delia travels with a child across the country. Suddenly she is thrown in with a handful of strangers. Among them are her mother’s ex-boyfriend Duster, whose presence is redolent with violence, and her mother’s next-door neighbor, who assumes because Esme is black and coughing that the baby must have AIDS. \(She once saw into the empty spaces where her mother had been, Delia fumbles for control of the situation. Monroe is writing from deep inside her character, and the prose is effortless, sharp, electrifying: 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER .10/22/04