blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Let’s No One Get Hurt
Jon Pineda
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

Let’s No One Get Hurt (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)

Jon Pineda never leaves poetry fully behind in his second novel, Let’s No One Get Hurt, which introduces us to the tough, turbulent voice of Pearl, a fifteen-year-old girl searching for stability and purpose in her isolated, rural existence. Language—and her ability to use it with “precision,” as her father tells her—is the one tether that anchors Pearl in a world that seems determined to uproot her from any shelter she finds.

Centered by Pearl’s clear-eyed grit and her longing for a permanent home, Pineda’s novel is a beautiful coming-of-age story that wrestles with alienation of all kinds. The chief question is whether Pearl’s family, who live as squatters, can scratch out an existence in the modern South, a culture so historically tied to land that it’s unclear what becomes of people on the perimeter, and Pineda fully explores the crosscurrent of race and class that has always managed to shove people off their spots on the map.

At the start of the novel, reeling from her mother’s sudden departure and a string of bills that can’t be paid, Pearl and her father have made their way to an abandoned boathouse on a riverside, where old friends Dox and Fritter have welcomed them into an off-the-grid existence. Their next meal is never certain unless they can catch it. They salvage scrap and use it to make rough outlines of houses, boats, and traps that will keep them fed a little longer. “Everything is makeshift,” Pearl says of the “quick creations” she forges with her makeshift family. For three years, Pearl learns how to survive in the shadows of civilization, always wary of outsiders who might discover them. That is, until she meets Mason Boyd, the teenage son of a wealthy southern aristocrat who has just bought all the land surrounding Pearl’s makeshift home.

Their tie to the land tenuous at best, Pearl finds other ways to put down roots. Here, poetry is her great equalizer, a way to see the value in herself without the need to justify it to outsiders. Pearl’s comfort with language comes from her parents, both academics who tend to treat Pearl more as a colleague than a daughter. Pearl’s now-absent mother spent her life writing about and translating Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and her work becomes a way of scribbling out the pain of her daily life, isolating herself from the outside world. Pearl sees how her mother uses language so transformatively, but Pearl can’t follow her mother there:

Any scrap of paper [my mother] found she covered in poems, even the backs of envelopes from medical bills, of which there were more and more. . . . She would hold them up and recite translations she had written in French. Her cursive I could usually read, but not when it was in another language.

Pearl chooses to take her family’s poetry out of this sterile, academic world and instead uses it to describe the daily struggle of living. In this context, the aging family dog, Marianne Moore, named after the modernist poet, becomes a fascinating symbol of poetry languishing on the vine. The novel opens with Pearl and her father taking Marianne Moore out to put her out of her misery, but neither can bring themselves to do it. “She looks happy,” they say, almost to convince themselves. Poetry, too, limps on, enlivened not by academics but by words in the mouths of people like Pearl, who loves her dog and her family and her home and wants to fix the beauty of these things into concrete form.

Pineda ties poetry directly to the forgotten spaces of America, showing how they can be treasured even if no one bothers to read or learn about them. Pearl takes this lesson to heart and walks through her world as if everything she touches is somehow sacred:

My mother used to say that poems were never finished, that they were only abandoned. I like to take some things my mother said and flip them on their head. For instance, I think all abandoned things are poems. In this way, if this place where we live together is truly abandoned, then we are living inside a poem.

Pearl’s lessons in language also arm her with the ability to see through power grabs that threaten her family. Her teenage neighbor Mason, who Pearl calls “Main Boy”—a sly, meta wink at interchangeable love interests and a sign that Pearl has an intimate knowledge of how stories are supposed to work—is part of a gang of bored, disaffected teenage sons of old southern money. Main Boy invites Pearl to join them, but Pearl sees through them in a heartbeat. “Main Boy says his friends are the future leaders of this town. Yet even though they boast of belonging to important families, I just think of them as flies. They’re all flies. Fucking flies.

Even so, they represent for Pearl entry into the world of luxury. Just a short ride away from the broken-down boathouse is Main Boy’s impossibly clean mansion, an oasis of hot showers and perfectly manicured sandwiches and fly-fishing that helps Pearl escape her life of constant foraging. She soon begins a secret romance with Main Boy that plants her in a strange liminal space between longing for a new life and being afraid to leave what she has. Even as she hungers to be a part of the boys’ normal lives, she sees how utterly shallow their existence is: “I like them better when they don’t talk, when I don’t know what’s in their heads.”

Pearl is especially attentive to the question of boundaries—how far she can go without being seen, how much she can do in a body that hasn’t fully matured. At one point, she sees a map that marks her home, her space far older than the new developments and houses that surround it: “[The boathouse’s] structure and the plot of land around it are actually drawn in black ink, there on the original, like I belong in this world more than the flies do.”

With Main Boy, Pearl feels herself drowning fast in his vision of their relationship. She is used to downplaying her own desires, but around Main Boy she feels both exposed and electrified. “I went from being invisible to something that could be touched,” she says. “My heart shook like a fish in a net.” In Main Boy’s arms, that net draws tighter and tighter, and Pearl can’t escape the feeling that she is exchanging one prison for another. She experiments with sex in Main Boy’s room in exchange for showers and food, a practical calculation that Pearl tries to rationalize, but her poetic understanding of herself can’t quite make the leap. “If a body is abandoned,” she says after their first sexual tryst, “does it become a poem?”

Meanwhile, despite their financial poverty, Pearl’s boathouse begins to look richer than Main Boy’s mansion, inhabited as it is by people Pearl recognizes as having untapped depths of secrets, desires, and loyalties that endear them to her even when they disappoint her. Some of the novel’s most standout moments come from the unexpected bond Pearl forms with Fritter, a black Army vet who also lives in the boathouse. Silent and physically intimidating, Fritter barely appears in the first half of the novel but then bursts to life when Fritter has to shepherd Pearl to the hospital to visit her ailing father. Their salvaged truck breaks down on the way, and Fritter and Pearl hatch a plan to make a river raft and sail the many miles to the hospital. Fritter proves a sturdy foil for Pearl’s tentative steps into the larger world—Fritter has seen the world and prefers to retreat to his room instead of believe it has something left for him. By the simple act of surviving together on the hazardous river, Pearl draws closer to Fritter, and the two boost each other’s sense of daring.

Pineda leans into the Huckleberry Finn parallels here, and the river figures just as large in Let’s No One Get Hurt as in Twain’s classic picaresque. The river takes on mythic significance for Pearl, both a reminder of her lost mother (which we learn about through flashbacks) and a possible escape from her current doldrums. Time and again, Pearl struggles to put a name to her relationship with the winding water: it’s a caregiver and a menace, untamable but comforting. “It almost doesn’t exist,” Pearl says, “like the blue of skim milk . . . . But I know it’s there. The river waits for me, and that’s all that matters.” It’s the first of many observations revealing the fear Pearl struggles to name and overcome: how is it possible to be known or remembered in a world that doesn’t see you at all? Pearl is cocooned in the middle of adolescence and property lines, longing to emerge but afraid of what the shift will mean.

Pineda also turns a critical eye to southern culture as a whole, focusing on how the modern South’s fear of being left behind can become a cruel, self-inflicted wound, where its powerful citizens continue turning to the past to pretend the world hasn’t changed. The flies are the inverse of this phenomenon, obsessing over YouTube hits for their “survival” videos that will prove their manhood, but their fathers spend as much time crafting bloodless Civil War reenactments, drained of meaning or morals. But like the flies, these men are going through the motions of recapturing a lost glory they never personally understood. When Fritter and Pearl crash a Civil War battle, “streaking” between the neat rows of soldiers just as the guns go up, it’s a bold reminder of the South’s forgotten people—the black, the poor, and the inconvenient.

“Do you know what some people called the Civil War in my hometown?” Fritter says to me.
“What’s that?”
“The Late, Great Unpleasantness.”
“That sounds poetic.”
“Yeah. Pretty fucking poetic.”

Pineda draws a sharp line between using poetry for and against power. When poetry obfuscates, it can be dangerous, but when it sharpens what we’re capable of seeing, it brings a clarity that can overcome worldly limitations.

Crashing the Civil War battle leaves Fritter and Pearl exhilarated, though it’s not long before the soldiers try to restore the order of their playground world. Pineda’s novel is best when it argues that the flies’ world isn’t real, that it’s a thin, paper front for an uglier underbelly. Occasionally, Pineda lets that ugliness come out, lanced like a boil, as when Fritter gets in a fight with some of the reenactors looking for revenge. But the novel’s climax may be the one weak spot—it’s another moment when the flies’ rudderless, gleeful violence breaks free, but in the rush to show that the flies aren’t harmless, Let’s No One Get Hurt falls into several clichés that the novel could have easily done without.

The better tension comes through the softer, internal moments, and the primary conflict involves Pearl figuring out how to open herself up without losing herself completely. Pineda shows that bridging the boundaries between people is one of the most important things we can accomplish and reminds us that connection can come about in unexpected ways. Pearl’s voice offers a strong, compelling lifeline to readers, who will get sucked into her words for an all-too-brief chance to see the world through her eyes. “All of it is borrowed,” Pearl says, and in acknowledging that, she can slowly learn to be grateful for the things that belong to her in a way that can’t be bought: friends and language and memory. It’s the fleeting, almost ephemeral moments that Pearl—and Pineda—most long to capture, and Pineda succeeds at bringing to life a marvelous, gritty new southern tale that brings poetry back into the heart where it belongs.  

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