Ask any member of the local comedy scene, and they might tell you they’re surprised it’s taken so long for the annual Funniest Person in Austin stand-up contest to set the stage for the police investigation of a comic’s untimely death. In the case of Austin author Amy Gentry’s new suspense novel, Last Woman Standing, it’s a fictional investigation, but tensions do run high during the competition, when dozens of comedians vie for the coveted title and a chance to bump their careers up to the next level.
But that premise alone doesn’t get to the core of why her book is such a remarkable and timely read. Ask any woman in any local comedy scene, and she’ll likely tell you she’s not at all surprised that the whole sordid ordeal centers around a whisper network built for and by women comics to warn each other about creepy guys who harass, assault and abuse.
Perhaps you have heard of the #MeToo movement, or perhaps you have been living underneath a rock buried below an as-yet-undiscovered planet, tucked deep within a faraway galaxy? If the latter, here is the gist: Sexual violence is real, and it is a problem, and survivors of all genders are feeling less obligated than ever to keep quiet about it.
Last Woman Standing takes readers onstage and backstage through the perspective of Dana Diaz, an Amarillo native navigating the always liminal space of a woman of color in the comedy scene. As the novel begins, Diaz is reeling from a disappointing stint trying to make it in Los Angeles, and has returned to Austin to pick up the pieces night after night at shitty open mics, offering her sharp material to dull crowds. When she meets a mysterious and beautiful woman — dun, dun, dah! — who is as tired of drunk, misogynist hecklers as she is, things begin to edge off the rails.
Just as a good joke hits a familiar premise with a surprising punchline, Last Woman Standing quickly signals that something more is going on with this new friendship. Without getting into spoilers, I’ll simply say: It’s what you think, and completely not what you think. Gentry doesn’t mess around with red herrings; she’s simply very careful with her dispensation of Diaz’s reality.
Indeed, Gentry’s thoughtful craftsmanship makes Last Woman Standing stand out, as it were, from a crowded field of twisty crime novels hoping to grab the attention of readers thirsty for a page-turner that will satisfy their craving for another Gone Girl. If you’ve ever been trapped on a plane with a book that offers a decent plot but prose that makes you wish you’d instead opted for two G&T’s and a Xanax, you know what I mean.
Gentry’s characters have depth and personality; they are not, as is too common, meant to work as vague placeholders for the everywoman looking to sink into a bubble bath with a glass of chardonnay and insert herself into a world of salacious intrigue that could, but for a few minor changes to the stature of a husband or the age of a child, be her own.
And yet Last Woman Standing does concern itself with an everywoman experience: Sexual assault, abuse and harassment, on levels both professional and personal, and the inevitable gaslighting that follows. Gentry grapples directly with the aftermath of accusations both private and public, daring readers to consider what justice really means in the face of men who, historically, have every rightful expectation that they can get away with whatever they want.
Because that’s really the issue, isn’t it? What do we do with the Harvey Weinsteins, the Woody Allens, the R. Kellys, the Roman Polanskis, the Kevin Spaceys, and the Donald Trumps of this abominable hellscape that we call contemporary life? Can we rely on a mutual and collective sense of right and wrong to temper, punish or stop toxic masculinity?
We obviously cannot. The current occupier of the White House belies what so many would love to believe is common sense: Bad guys don’t succeed. Bad guys do succeed; in fact, they fail upward, as do so many of their fellow men, powerful gatekeepers who are too anxious and insecure to take real action to create consequences for their abusive brethren.
What happens, then, when women “take matters into their own hands?” In Last Woman Standing, a variation of this cliché becomes the darkly hilarious tagline of one vigilante’s answer to the problem of entitled men who prey on those they assume will stay silent and compliant. But hurt begets hurt; justice is a complicated process that means something different to everyone who’s been wronged, and it must be applied thoughtfully and carefully to achieve true restoration. Gentry confronts the question of what it means to seek this kind of restitution, and what the blanket application thereof might be — not merely for survivors, but for everyone in the sphere of harm.
Those looking for easy answers will not find it in this excellent book. I wish that solutions were as easy as the good guys getting the bad guy (and oh, how often it is a bad guy). Gentry complicates the aftermath of trauma, asking us, through the hard decisions made by Dana Diaz and her sisters in the entertainment industry, to think skeptically about whose work is championed. Her conclusion makes us wonder: Are the good guys really good? Who might be invested in preserving this, or any, narrative?
Gentry offers a simultaneously satisfying but unsettling conclusion to a tale we want to be tied up neatly. But there are no easy answers to the scourge of toxic, which is to say altogether casual, masculinity, and we have a long way to go before we end the patriarchy’s reign of creepdom. What Gentry does offer is a fascinating and titillating alternative: If we are to let men enjoy the freedom of unchecked and unwanted sexual dominance, we must accept the subversive and potentially murderous power of the women who say: Me too, but not anyone else, you asshole.