Above: Love Me Back By Merritt Tierce
224 pages; $23.95
Certain qualities separate a good waiter from an adequate one. Charisma—the ability to control one’s mood and impose it on others—is paramount. So is poise. A quick wit and talent for nuanced observation can save. Most of all, though, to really last in a restaurant, one must cultivate a willingness to indulge the customer—her off-menu orders, his wandering hands, his little tantrums, her hinted-at desires. If all of this seems degrading, well, so’s being unemployed.
One gets the sense that Merritt Tierce, author of the debut novel Love Me Back, was a brilliant waitress. Through her late teens and twenties, Tierce worked in restaurants, including the high-end Dallas steakhouse Nick & Sam’s. Her writing displays the same coy appeal, unflinching eye, whip-smart humor and cool immorality crucial to a successful career in the service industry.
The book’s better angels aim to capture the Metroplex’s class, race and gender dynamics in the microcosm of the restaurant world—with considerable success. We meet undocumented dishwashers and barbacks who will never be paid as well as the lazy white bartenders they hustle for; an upwardly mobile black waiter who can do anything with grace and aplomb except escape the service mentality; boat-owning douchebags slobbering over a shallow heartbreaker with the perfect body; the oil tycoon who gets so drunk he pisses himself on the one-block ride back to his hotel. There are many descriptions of apartments, some seedier than others but none of them very appealing. There are no descriptions of nature.
For all its social-tapestry ambitions, however, Love Me Back finally comes across as something darker, more symptomatic, primal and off-putting. Tierce’s prose is a shock to the system: the stream of muttered invectives you don’t hear as your waiter walks away from your table, the after-hours kamikaze mission of sex and drugs to balance out the debasement of the dinner shift, the rotgut tequila poured into a Patrón bottle and sold high because who will know the difference? Love Me Back is a lurid book full of unpleasant characters doing nasty things to one another. It also feels original, a voice from below that we haven’t heard before, that hasn’t had the temerity to speak up until now.
Our protagonist is Marie—like Tierce, a mother before her 20th birthday. We watch her learn the ropes of the service game, progressing from teenage gigs at Olive Garden and Chili’s to a big-time downtown steakhouse, referred to only as The Restaurant, where bills frequently average $300 per person. The Restaurant is presided over by Danny, a ravenous ego with VIP status at the local strip club, a hefty cocaine habit, and a tendency to expose his genitals to his waitstaff. In a perverse sense, this display is a team-building exercise. “Danny’s appetite is the spirit of the place: the excesses of an entire microculture are concentrated in his one body,” Marie tells us.
“There is a kind of partying undertaken by people of my age and station on birthdays, or on other momentous occasions such as the losing of a job,” she continues later. “The kind of partying that leaves one wrecked for days, sometimes close to death. The kind of partying that concludes with the unconscious body of the individual being arranged by any remaining friends in such a way that it can be trusted not to aspirate vomit. This is the kind of partying that lingers so badly it causes one to leave off for another year or so. This is also the kind of partying that Danny rips through several times a week.”
The emphasis is on the phrase people of my age and station. As Tierce chronicles Marie’s increasingly wild nights traversing the barscapes and low-rent apartment complexes of Dallas, we witness a pathological debauchery mired in service-class resignation. A life of eating Ro*Tel-flavored rice and beans with her teenage husband bores her, so Marie begins to explore her own libidinous appetites: for love, then attention, then incident, and eventually a sort of outsourced self-mutilation.
In the book’s in media res opening section, 20-something Marie meets a foursome of surgeons, and one asks her out. Tierce teases readers with the old-fashioned novelistic archetype of a decent-hearted service-class woman rescued by the man she’s waiting on: “I could be an accident, a good one lodged in the mire, waiting to be sprung.”
It becomes clear immediately, however, that Love Me Back will be a different kind of book, and Marie a different kind of character. Marie stands up her promising date because she’s high on cocaine and proceeds, over the next few days, to service all three of his business partners, including two at the same time. Tierce can’t be accused of falling into the cliché of imbuing her service-class characters with moral purity superior to the plutocrats they wait on.
Instead, Tierce gambles with the likelihood that readers will be turned off by Marie’s behavior. In particular, her relationship to motherhood may offend. We see her snorting coke while her daughter naps and keeping a hard-partying schedule that has her sleeping roughly the same hours that her daughter goes to school. Luckily, the child’s father is a more dependable parent. “Her dad’s a good guy and I love her like nothing,” Marie tells us. “Neither of those changed the fact that I’d felt crazy since she was born, like I wasn’t meant for it. I just woke up one day and said I can’t do this. This isn’t real. I’m in the wrong life. It was that abrupt, overnight, like a snake molting out of a skin. Leaving it behind, slithering away cold-blooded.”
The question of Marie’s motherhood, of course, is political too. Late in the book, we learn that Marie was headed to college when she got pregnant on a church mission trip. In the book’s most ambitious chapter, Tierce presents a scene of teenage Marie meeting with the church elders—nine of them, all male, discussing the fate of her pregnancy—alongside another scene, set years later, of an embittered and nihilistic Marie waiting on a large party of misogynist-joke-telling businessmen.
Tierce’s undeniable talents as a writer lifted her out of the service industry and into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and eventually into print. Until recently, she worked as executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, a grassroots organization that provides financial assistance to women who cannot afford the cost of an abortion. Considering Tierce’s reinvention as a feminist leader deep in enemy territory, it’s impossible not to be touched by Marie’s self-assurance in the midst of one of her manager’s sociopathic outbursts: “If I don’t cross Danny and I don’t let any of it get to me the money is so good I can turn it into something else, something honorable.”
No question, Tierce’s abortion-access work is honorable. That is not an adjective one could use to describe her book, however. To Tierce’s credit, her tone never becomes cautionary or redemptive. Love Me Back is the opposite of a 12-step novel. Tierce’s eye is trained on the immutable sociological grievances—rather than the personal choices—behind her characters’ self-destructive behavior. The hopelessness is seductive. Instead of waiting for Danny to change, we feel his appetite in our gut like a tapeworm, just as we allow ourselves to be titillated by Marie’s nights of ritual promiscuity.
And at novel’s end we lay down a hefty tip, praising it as “searing,” “fierce” and “propulsive”—all available on the back cover, and all accurate. But what has this transaction really entailed? Have we been merely charmed, well served and sated? Or are we correct in thinking there was some genuine human recognition, some important truth that has passed between us? Walking out of the restaurant, we’re more and more unsure. The ambiguity only makes us want to come back soon.