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The Black Sunshine of Goody Pryne

by Sarah Withrow

Black sunshine is an excellent term to describe the intense energy and perverse pleasure teens derive from being depressed or angry, wounded or misunderstood. But author Sarah Withrow’s black sunshine too often becomes a black hole in her new novel of two grieving misfits. Though dead parents, divorced parents, and angst-ridden teens are commonplace in the dramas of life and children’s literature, there are limits to what readers can bear. More is not more, in this instance, and the largely unrelieved misery of Withrow’s dramatis personae makes this novel a mirthless slog.

Two years ago, Stevie Walters’ father was killed by a drunk driver. Stevie managed to cut fabric swatches from the driver’s seat of his dad’s car, and he now carries them around with him, rubbing them when he’s anxious. His father was eating a piece of licorice when he was killed; when Stevie is stressed, his appetite congeals, and everything tastes like licorice. His growth is stunted. While this affliction is nicely symbolic, I wasn’t entirely convinced of its psychological veracity. (Similarly, why would Stevie derive comfort from the material on which his father died violently, rather than pieces, say, of an old shirt?) To make Stevie’s personal life even more wretched, his mother is still an emotional wreck, and has a sadistic habit of ripping up photographs of Stevie’s father in front of her son when she’s angry with him. Are we having fun yet?

Stevie’s only friend is Goody Pryne, an enormous, eccentric, violent-tempered astronomy enthusiast whose parents are divorced, and whose father is callous and unloving. Misery unites these two teenagers and keeps them on the margins of school society. Once she establishes her characters, Withrow seems content to reiterate their unhappiness for several chapters before a clear narrative emerges. The plot centres around Goody’s vicious feud with her former best friend, Josie, the result of an alleged secret misdemeanour of Goody’s. The girls’ animosity becomes increasingly violent, and Stevie begins to question his friendship with Goody.

Teenagers’ lives can certainly be intensely hermetic and angry and sad, but the main problem with Withrow’s novel is that its palette has very little breadth. It’s all blacks and browns, with maybe a bit of greasy gray thrown in. There are scarcely any moments of warmth, levity, or playfulness – all of which are also parts of even the most miserable teenager’s life. For the bulk of the novel, Withrow’s characters fester in their unhappiness, stretching credulity and also the reader’s willingness to keep going.

Within the seven short pages of chapter nine, for example, Withrow manages to cram an astonishing amount of gloom and misery. We open on page 70 with Stevie thinking: “Last week I was afraid Goody was going to kill Josie. Today I’m afraid she’s going to kill me…” On page 72, “Goody stands up. She looms over me, dressed in black like the shadow of death.” On page 74 Goody tells her enemy: “You are infinitesimal. You are inert. The shadow of a dead cockroach has more power to affect me than you do…” On the next page, Stevie feels “like I’m on the urge of being sucked into oblivion.” Turn the page for, “‘Do you have any idea how much I hate you?’ I hiss at her, and it chokes at the back of my throat.” Skip to the very next page and the chapter winds up with Stevie noting: “It’s like I’m in one of those nightmares where you’re in a dark basement and there’s a low dark doorway at the end of the room and you just know whatever’s behind it is sad and evil but you can’t stop walking toward it.” And this is just lunchtime in the school cafeteria! Imagine the potential for grief in the locker rooms.

Withrow obviously remembers the terse verbal rules of engagement between teens; the dialogue is credibly nasty, and Stevie’s first-person narration is authentic and sometimes darkly humorous. When he first meets Goody he says, “I was afraid of her because I heard that she had pushed the Lifestyle and Ethics teacher into the oven during a test meal.”

Withrow uses language very well, and some of her passages have a run-on lyricism that’s touching. When Goody tells Stevie her plans for the afterlife, Stevie is very moved: “I was staring down at the moving dots in the pool and listening to the echoes of the splashing and yelling coming off the walls, and my eyes blurred and sound zoomed in on itself so that I was swimming on the inside of my head, floating through a liquid pitch-black universe, slipping my hands through the sunshine of the stars. I opened my mouth and let the stars fall in, and the light tasted so sweet.” But Withrow’s writerly prose can sometimes also get soggy and lapse into the cryptic. “I look at Tsula. Gold eyes or no gold eyes, there’s nothing Tsula could say that would shake what I got for Goody and her all-inness, her whip-sharpness, her crush-readiness. I’m hitched to that. I need it. I heed it. It pulls me up.”

In the novel’s final third, there is an emotional thaw in both Stevie and the book in general: things start looking up as Stevie escapes Goody’s pull and begins making other friends. There is a very good comic scene with Stevie shopping for new clothes with his mother – the first bit of levity in the novel. Withrow’s characters, especially Stevie, do develop, though with an emotional sophistication that isn’t always convincing. (Stevie’s brokering of a peace agreement between Goody and Josie might seem more at home in Camp David.) But Stevie’s realization that Goody is not at all good for his mental and social health is very nicely handled – and so, too, is his loyal decision not to simply jettison her, but to try to reconcile her to her former best friend, and greater society at large. It is a noble attempt, if only minimally successful.

The excessively dark tone of The Black Sunshine of Goody Pryne is impediment enough without its truly terrible cover. The drab colours, gloomy expressionist style, and creepy crick-necked depiction of Stevie on a swing will, at best, induce ennui in young readers; at worst, it will actively repel them. Thank goodness, at least, that Edvard Munch or Francis Bacon weren’t available.