Years ago, I worked part-time as assistant to the publisher of Persea Books. I started right around the time that Persea published Dylan Landis’s first book of fiction, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. I read it and was amazed at Landis’s assured and beautiful prose, at the way she could make even minor characters seem fully alive. I was also amazed that the book was being sold as a short story collection when it was so clearly a novel about the parallel lives of two women, Leah Levinson and her distant mother, Helen. The story of these characters was told in giant leaps, both in time and perspective, that, yes, could be read as self-contained short stories in themselves, but it seemed evident that Landis was painting on a much broader canvas.
Persea was, at the time, renting a corner of the office of another indie publisher: Soho Press. Soho was mostly known then for its Soho Crime imprint, but they had a growing and outstanding list of literary fiction. In the years since, I’ve enjoyed watching Soho grow even more and garner accolade after accolade for their work. When I found out that they were publishing Dylan Landis’s next book, Rainey Royal, it was a strange bit of harmony for me. I’d encountered Soho and Landis when I was struggling to get a foothold in the publishing industry just as they, too, were finding their footing. Their potential was easy to see and, in hindsight, I always should have expected Soho and Landis to get together. They’re perfect for each other. I know this because Soho had the sense to call Rainey Royal a novel.
Rainey Royal is the kind of novel with a chapter that won the O’Henry Prize. Like Normal People Don’t Live Like This, it’s also part of something greater, a fictional universe that begins in New York City in the 1970’s and then expands to track the trajectory of several women as they grow up and apart, only to collide again at unexpected moments. Normal People opens with a stunning story about young Rainey and then turns the spotlight to Rainey’s classmate, Leah. With Rainey Royal, Landis keeps the attention on this magnetic character, the “bad girl” who Leah couldn’t keep away from. We watch her grow in fits and starts just as we watched Leah grow. And Leah’s there too, just as Rainey was around in Normal People, their lives, or at least this time in their lives, interwoven. It’s as if Landis is building windows in the shape of stories into the parallel world these characters inhabit, a world whose scope seems as infinite as our own. All her characters, no matter how marginal they may seem, have lives worth exploring; Landis just has to decide which window she wants to open next. Personally, I’m looking forward to Honor Brennan.
— F. Taylor Pavlik, Associate Editor
Late October sunlight slants through shuddering leaves, angling low into the windows. Rainey does her homework sprawled on her pink carpet — when she does it. More often she goes to the museum after school, pulling out a sketchpad, dropping her army pack with its straps and buckles noisily on the floor.
People look up. People always look up. She radiates power and light.
“Have you seen her notebooks?” Howard demands when he is summoned to the school. Rainey looks at him gratefully. They sit across a conference table from two teachers and the principal. It’s a cool school. Everyone wears jeans except the janitor. Even the principal wears jeans. Howard calls him Dave. When he calls the science teacher Honor he gives her a long, private smile, as if a waiter were even now carrying in a silver tray set for two. “Her real notebooks, Dave, the ones she draws in. Do you people not know an artist when you see one?”
He pulls a pack of Kools from his shirt pocket, flashing a large watch that Rainey loves, smacks the pack on his hand, and flicks a cigarette toward her. Shocked, obedient, she pulls it out. Next to the cigarette, tucked farther down in the pack, she sees a joint.
“For one thing,” says Honor Brennan, and looks sharply at Rainey’s unlit cigarette. There seem to be so many things, Rainey thinks.
Rainey does not smoke menthol, and students can’t smoke inside the school, and she knows Howard knows this. He lights his own cigarette. She waves the lighter away.
“Come on,” says Howard, holding the flame. “Don’t be afraid. Regulations are just words on paper.” Dave looks at the smoke and coughs. He is wearing a tie-dye T-shirt. It is not impressing anyone, thinks Rainey.
She glances at her teachers, hesitates. “My thumb is burning,” says Howard. She can hear what he doesn’t say, too. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. She leans into the lighter and inhales.
“This is highly unorthodox,” says Dave.
“Even artists go to college,” says the English teacher, Zach Moreno, softly.
“By definition, the artist lives outside of society,” says Howard, “and mirrors it to itself, whether he goes to college or not. I’m an adjunct, personally, and this is what I teach. Are you noticing any lack of intelligence in my daughter? You’re not? Then — ladies, gentlemen — are we really here to discuss a few missed pages of homework for a girl who spends every afternoon in a museum?”
“She could go to art school,” says Dave. “There’s RISD. There’s Cooper Union if she can get in. But she needs the grades.”
“What are you grading?” Howard blows a stream of smoke past Dave’s head. “I think you should ask yourselves this,” he says. “Why does your art teacher ask a girl who can’t stay out of the Met to rub an egg with a spoon?”
Friday night Rainey and Tina decide to get high. No occasion — just that Howard and Gordy are playing the Vanguard, with most of the acolytes in tow; just that two months into school Rainey is bored sick. The government is based on a tripartite system, and she’s supposed to care about this why, exactly? She’s in love with Studio Art; it’s got Rapidograph pens, and Rainey can draw anything — Ophelia drowning, Icarus falling, Janis Joplin lusciously dead from smack, with that fabulous throat — but Mr. Knecht assigned some weird shit. They had to form eggs out of raw clay, let them dry for two weeks, and then polish them in an endless, circular motion with the backs of teaspoons.
School did not provide the teaspoons. Rainey took one of Lala’s spoons, an English antique sterling spoon that shows a leaping hart. She knows the difference between a leaping hart, which she draws surrounded by William Morris–like leaves, and a leaping heart, which she draws interpretively. Sometimes she draws it so interpretively she has to tear the picture out of her notebook and rip it into little strips and throw them out in different trash cans on her way to school.
The egg polishing goes on for two more weeks, consuming entire art periods. Rainey steals her egg from the windowsill and burnishes during French, world religions, and math.
“What’s the fucking point?” says Tina. They are baking their dinner: zucchini muffins. They can’t decide if it’s better to distribute the whole nickel bag through the batter or roll a couple of joints first.
“My egg is perfect,” says Rainey. “It looks like pewter.”
Aqua threads trail from Lala’s ancient copy of The Joy of Cooking as if it has a secret underwater life. Rainey checks the recipe, then pours a dollop of vanilla into the bowl without measuring.
“Now, see, if he told me to rub an egg on a spoon,” says Tina, in that husky voice Rainey never tires of, “I’d stick the spoon down his throat.”
Rainey readies herself. She always has to mention the one thing that hurts; it’s like nudging a loose tooth. “Your grandmother said you could sleep here both nights, right?”
Tina winces. It’s a faint movement around the eyes. “Probably.” The grandmother is a sensitive subject. Tina turns her back and reaches for a bag of sugar. Her top rides up, revealing an indented waist that Rainey appreciates because it is necessary that they both be sexy, but revealing, also, a little sash of fat, which Rainey relishes because it is necessary that only one of them have a flawless body.
It is after the time Howard said to her, “Next to Tina, you’re a centerfold — is that why you hang out with her?” and Rainey, thrilled and mortified, choked out that Tina was her best friend, and Howard looked past her at silent Gordy and said, “‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’”
Tina licks a finger and dips it in the bag of sugar. “You think Gordy might come in our room?”
Rainey brains an egg on the edge of the bowl. She thinks about a redheaded oboist she likes to look at across the parlor till he blushes. She demanded his name once, and he stammered it: Flynn. Howard likes to say he has the only jazz oboist in New York. Rainey is not allowed to bother the acolytes, but she can stare.
Gordy has never come in on sleepovers before — she assumes because she stays up and talks.
“He just checks on me,” she says in a low voice. “He never does anything.”
When Tina laughs it sounds like huh. Rainey suddenly feels grateful to have confessed the hair stroking, grateful that Tina doesn’t judge. Maybe Tina intuits the back rubs, which only just started. Tina, caught beneath an overhead light that brings out the cinnamon in her hair, has her moments of beauty and perfect understanding.
“If he comes in,” says Tina, “can we be mean to him?”
“He lives here,” says Rainey, who only knows certain ways of being mean to Gordy.
“You know the kind of mean I mean.” Tina orbits her upper teeth with her tongue as if checking the jewels on a bracelet. They have both perfected the Pearl Drops move.
The words drawing off come faintly to mind — a lightning rod drawing off the fatal bolt; a sister drawing off a bully. A saint, intervening. Is it cool if the person drawing off does not know what she is getting into?
“Stick a knife in his heart for all I care.”
“Whoa,” says Tina. “Fond of the motherfucker, are we?”