The protagonist and narrator in Minimum Maintenance (Bonnie’s Mews Publications, 240 pages) by Carolyn Colburn is a thirteen-year old girl named Sugar, named so because her mother didn’t want to say “shit” on camera. Sugar bumps along in the wake of her untethered mother from Minneapolis to Up North to Montana, Oklahoma, Nevada and parts in between, smoking cigarettes and joints, working on a tattoo and making fleeting friendships along the way. The title indicates the nature of Sugar’s childhood along the back roads, where dead cars pile high and outliers hang onto reality for dear life, doing what they do with drugs, booze, guns, sex, and hair dye.
Colburn takes chances. Her plot is not linear, her subject matter difficult, her narrative voice brilliant, but bumpy – like the roads this mother and daughter travel. Her character Sugar follows no script, no preconceived notion of coming of age without substantial parenting. Her voice in these eight interrelated stories is frank and open, as if being locked out of the hotel room in the middle of the night so her mother can entertain and earn the next day’s cash are all a normal part of growing up. This girl’s eyes miss nothing – and judge nothing. The novel is a series of conversations and observations over the miles, but the reader will feel no manipulation, as is sometimes the case in coming of age tales. Sugar presents herself with depth and dignity. Even when she colors her hair wild colors and chops it to the scalp so that her mother’s boyfriends will leave her alone, she does this as a matter of course and this aspect of the writing, this lack of pandering or re-imagining childhood, feels real and raw.
Only sometime I wished they’d left me in the Boonies with Elroy. It’s hard to explain. Elroy never said much, just went about his business, messing with his junk cars, selling parts to other motorheads. Though he was a good cook, peanut butter and potato chip sandwiches being his specialty. He was easy to be around,sort of like being with no one.
The conversations feel equally real and raw. The author has an ear for characters on the fringe as they explain their wisdoms, such as Nesta, the housekeeper at the Starlite Hotel, telling Sugar why the bible says there are no dinosaurs:
“But Nesta,” I said, grabbing the drawings out of her way, “why would the scientists make something like that up?”
“You have no idea, the plans they have,” said Nesta. “They make this stuff up to throw us off the trail.”
“The trail of what?” I said, and Nesta said, “UFOs. They’re everywhere, watching us. The goverment don’t want us to know. They’re afraid we might get some idea to go up in one of them UFOs, take off someplace,not pay taxes.”
I thought for a minute. “But Nesta, UFOs aren’t in the bible.”
Nesta rolled her eyes. “Honey, the Bible is nothing but UFOs, every time you turn around, just chock full of ’em.”
The journey, like all wonderful literary journeys, offers up danger, monsters and sidetracks, but unlike Homer or Lord Jim, Sugar and her mother struggle to make progress. They cover miles, but they don’t really get ahead. One hotel leads to another, men fall away, old cars give out and every road only leads to somewhere else. But the rhythm of the road comes through in the writing, where almost every page sings some raspy tune.
A good description of the Double P would start square. Square yard, square barn, square house, like that cardboard dollhouse I made then left in the middle of the apartment we left in the middle of the night before Ma’s friend got back, before Jack got back, and Ma saying, Hurry it up now Sugar shake a leg there girl, and I never said goodbye to my friend Lucille.
While the arc of the journey is subtle, the author works with the themes of neglect and risk, and unfolds more and more harrowing events that Sugar must deal with as her mother struggles to survive. Yet it never feels that Sugar herself struggles to survive. She is resourceful and intelligent and figures out diversions for herself:
We were watching the TV test pattern, listening to the rain, passing a pint. She said after all I’d been through, I deserved a good belt, only don’t make it a habit. We’d spent the afternoon playing poker. I was twelve dollars and thirty-five cents richer. Now the cards lay jumbled around us like leaves on the flowery bedspread. Tomorrow we’d be back on the road, headed for her next gig on the outskirts of Milwaukee.
This resourcefulness and intelligence can also be said of Colburn as a writer. She has created a tough, lovely mishmash of characters in a book that was written with support from the Minnesota State Arts Board and a Loft McKnight Fellowship. It all stays with you.
Elroy said: “I may be ignorant, but I ain’t stupid.” Not that I know what this means exactly. Only sometimes I find myself saying it over and over, like a chant, or a song you just can’t get out of your head even though it’s driving you mental –
–Kathleen Novak, author of Do Not Find Me, 2016