Why Stuff Matters by Jen Waldo
I loved Jen Waldo’s first novel, Old Buildings in North Texas which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here (with a Q&A with Jen here). In it, Olivia, a wise-cracking cocaine addict, is sent back home to Caprock in the Texas panhandle, under her mother’s control as rehab. Having no money and needing to occupy her time, Olivia takes up ‘Urbexing’ – urban exploration, trespassing into old abandoned buildings (and often finding things which could be sold on). Olivia was a wonderful character and I had hoped that Jen would write more about her adventures or her wonderful mom. Jen said no, but she has stayed in the fictional town of Caprock for her second novel, in which we meet an equally quirky cast of characters.
Jessica is a grieving widow, but life has to go on. She owns an antiques mall in Caprock, inherited from her mother. She lives over the shop, in the flat above; the other floors and basement are full of stalls, almost all run by elderly folk, each stall full of overpriced stuff – it’s as if the stallholders can’t bear to let their stock go. Jessica would like to bring the mall into the current century, and many of the stall holders are suspicious of her management methods – like posting notices requiring them to get any old rugs cleaned to minimise dust and mould, or they’ll be removed. In this Jessica reminds me of (former) Market Inspector Robbie in Eastenders, who tried hard, but didn’t quite understand how his stallholders worked!
As the novel begins, a tornado is passing through Caprock. The mall is untouched, and Jessica had opened up her basement for shelter One of the stallholders, Pard, wasn’t so lucky and died before he could find a safe retreat. Pard’s demise causes Jessica a big problem – his stall had an illicit collection of old firearms in it. All the other stallholders knew about it, and custom is that when one of them dies with no heirs, the stock is shared out between them – they all want the guns, (and they all want their share of the vintage typewriters at Pard’s house too). Local cop Barry, who fancies Jessica, is sniffing around about the guns too. Things get more complicated when Roxy, an ex-con herself, shoots her ex-husband dead with one of the guns. Roxy, at over eighty, persuades Jessica to help bury him, and ere long, she is involved in the cover-up.
Then we are introduced to twelve-year-old Lizzie, Don’s child by his first wife, who gets dumped on Jessica for a few weeks while her mother gets arty in Italy. It soon becomes clear that Lizzie will there for much longer and Jessica has to find a way of getting on with her and finding things for her to do whilst still grieving for Lizzie’s father. Lizzie soon finds that the elderly tenants will pay for her help and starts to carve out her own niche.
These are interesting times for Jessica, and I was delighted that Waldo’s wit and wisdom are present once again. This story was hilarious and full of characters – especially Roxy who can play an old lady with dementia at the drop of a hat to get out of scrapes like shooting her husband! Then there are the things that the stallholders try to sell – a new tenant sells used funeral urns – I’m sure it really happens, and there is a Simpsons-esque ‘Comic Book Guy’.
‘Hey, Audrey, how goes the recycled urn business?’
‘Everybody got at least one of the typewriters except me,’ she says sadly.
‘You haven’t been here long enough to be included in their revenge conspiracies,’ I tell her.
‘But I’m a friend of Genevieve’s and she’s been here for years. Shouldn’t that count for something?’
‘Doesn’t look like it.’
Defeated, she slumps away.
Looking after it all is Jessica, and she is simply wonderful having been forced into becoming a widow and mother-surrogate – and not forgetting managing and looking after all her elderly tenants. It is nice to see Jessica’s mothering instincts coming out as the relationship between her and Lizzie grows. This is a wry and gentle comedy, despite Roxy’s murderous habits, but it is touching and sometimes sobering too when needed, especially in the resolution of one of the storylines. This novel, more so than Old Buildings reminded me of Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism (reviewed here) – another small town American novel full of observational drama. Waldo is probably funnier though, and I loved Why Stuff Matters. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Jen Waldo, Why Stuff Matters (Arcadia Books, 2017) Hardback, 300 pages.