Cans of Aqua Net. Screen doors that flap. Ford Pintos. Wood-grained contact paper on toilet lids. Cheap Zebco fishing reels. Sinead O’Connor cassette tapes. Establishments with names like Padlock Pizza and DoRight Donuts.
In her more than promising first novel, “Crooked Hallelujah,” Kelli Jo Ford summons the details of minimum-wage life in the last quarter of the 20th century. She does this without cluttering her spare sentences, which is why her details resonate.
Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and her book opens in that state. In pickup trucks and cars with primer-painted doors, her characters move between there and Texas during the 1980s oil bust and later. They’re in flux, hoping to escape the sort of life one puts this way: “All I’ve ever done is screw up and react.”
This is a novel in stories, a dread form in the wrong hands. The point of view shifts, vertiginously, from one chapter to the next, as if you are watching a heist from multiple security cameras. But “Crooked Hallelujah” has a supple cohesiveness. It also has two primary and subtly curving narrative arcs — those of a Cherokee mother and daughter, Justine and Reney.
When we first meet Justine, she’s a lanky 15. Her mother is a Holy Roller who won’t let her play basketball because men will see her legs. Justine’s father fled before she got to know him.
The men in “Crooked Hallelujah” are rarely more than distant louts, some crueler than others. They compete to out-awful one another. They’re guys who — maybe like all of us, I don’t know — seem to be on a perpetual, fatuous search for Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Justine gets pregnant. Her life is so small that even Charles Manson’s face on the cover of Rolling Stone calls to her. To join what remained of his family would, at minimum, be a way out.
We find Justine holding down jobs in factories and honky tonks, usually in back-to-back shifts. She sleeps with the wrong men. She has blue eyes and calls herself “a hillbilly half-breed.” She’s fierce, especially when it comes to the notion that her daughter should have a better life than she has had.
Reney doesn’t know her father, either. She grows up mostly in Texas, where Justine has moved to be with a man. She’s good with horses, and a strong student. She ends up working at a Dairy Queen when a Pell grant falls through.
One man remembers Reney, in high school, as “a Cherokee princess, a wild girl in the good classes, scary from behind the three-point line and sneaky on defense.” Before long she’s drifting across the country, doing banquet hall work, hoping to get into college.
As a writer, Ford is quietist. Her book reads like a series of acoustic songs recorded on a single microphone in a bare room with a carpet. There are times when you might wish for more boldness, but she never puts a wrong foot. This is a writer who carefully husbands her resources. Small scenes begin to glitter.
“Crooked Hallelujah” has an elegiac rather than a comic tone. Yet when I combed back through my notes, I realized that so many moments had made me smile. Her narrators walk through life saying things like “I tried to smooth my hair and did my best to pull my shorts from my butt.”
There’s a moment in which Justine, when young, begs to go to Six Flags with her father, who has briefly re-emerged. Her Church Lady mother says to her: “If you want to ride a roller coaster in your first act as a spiritual adult, so be it.”
Later, Reney sees her estranged grandfather in a doughnut shop. She wants to accost him but can’t muster the nerve. He strides past her and she thinks, “I was pretty sure I smelled his B.O. even after he was in his truck throwing gravel.”
Justine defines college as a place where you take on debt “to study books she could have read for free.”
Some intense things happen in “Crooked Hallelujah.” There’s a robbery and gunfire. Near the end, in the near future, fires seem to presage increasingly apocalyptic events.
But Ford’s novel finds its center of gravity at the intimate human level. Justine and Reney, angels flying too close to the ground, dismiss the clean, managerial men who might give them access to the middle class. They crave the bad boys, and in one scene Reney counts up some of her mother’s lovers.
“There was the one who traveled around sharpening barbers’ razors and scissors and prided himself on keeping the kitchen knives sharp,” Ford writes. “There was a rodeo clown with the sweet dog and his own bag of makeup. Then there was the one whose friend owned the bar where Justine worked. This one wore a .38 Special in a holster he clipped to the inside of his cowboy boot.”
Justine leaves the cowboy boot guy. After she does, he sneaks into the factory where she works and puts poison ivy in her purse.
Stephen King paperbacks. Perms. Fried bologna sandwiches. Washing machines on layaway. Arms that smell like Shower to Shower. Buick LeSabres.
The details don’t matter, until they do.