A couple of days ago on Information Morning, I talked about how I wished that I could carve out some time to revisit some of my favourite books. I mentioned three in particular: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Kristin McCloy’s Velocity. All three of these books had a profound impact on me, the first two when I was much younger and McCloy’s book when I first read it as a twenty-something. Of those three, I have actually already re-read Velocity numerous times and I just finished reading it again.
I think I am going to have a difficult time articulating exactly why I continue to find Velocity so compelling, but I do want to honour the book and its place in my personal canon here, especially because I recently had the very good fortune of exchanging a couple emails with the novel’s author, Kristin McCloy. (Insert fangirl squee here.)
When it was first published in 1988, Velocity caused quite a stir and earned copious praise. I am not sure what year I picked up my copy, perhaps 1989, but I definitely purchased it at The Strand in NYC. I devoured the book then for reasons that will surely become apparent a little further on.
So, what’s the book about?
Twenty-five-year-old Ellie Lowell has returned to her backwater North Carolina hometown to scatter her mother’s ashes. Ellie’s an only child and she’s been living in New York City for the past six years, so she’s finding it difficult to connect with her taciturn father, a local cop. They share the family home like two strangers might share a taxi ride to the airport – making small talk, but never really connecting.
Despite the awkwardness, Ellie decides to stay home for the summer, leaving her fledgling career in the film business and her boyfriend, Dec, back in the Big Apple. She gets a job at a local diner and before you can say two eggs over easy, she’s hooked up with Jesse, the half-Cherokee biker who lives down the road. Ellie knows he’s trouble. She says
…it occurs to me, a thousand woman, he’s had a thousand women, and every one of them has fed him everything she had.
Even though Jesse isn’t much for talking, Ellie finds herself pulled into his orbit. The attraction is sexual, of course, and she remarks that his “crazy height and that straight hair down to [his] shoulders, even from the shadows of [his] porch, the way [he] stared at me would’ve burned a hole in a blind woman’s side…”
When she’s with Jesse, she doesn’t think about anything else and that’s a good thing because what Ellie doesn’t want to think about is that her mother is dead. She can’t avoid the knowledge that “Everything crumbles. The walls, the rooftop…every structure will fall. Everything known, all that is so familiar, will vanish. Including myself.” What she can do, however, is push that knowledge away and although she is “aware of [her] grief waiting for [her], patient and thick,…right now it is remote.” Jesse is in its path.
At her age I was doing much the same thing, which is, I suppose, why Velocity struck a chord with me when I first read it all those years ago. I don’t recall what I was running from, but I sure knew what I thought I was running to. My guy, let’s call him S., was crazy tall, mostly silent, beautiful, at least to me, and he’d often disappear for days at a time, throwing me into a frenzy of longing, and then reappearing like an apparition. Like Ellie, I read into the smallest of gestures – a moment of tenderness could sustain me for weeks. S. wasn’t a criminal, but he definitely had his own demons and he was in no position to give me what I so desperately wanted. Our relationship was doomed from the start, but that didn’t prevent me from showing up where I’d know or hope he’d be or using sex as a bargaining chip. Our whole relationship was just fraught. And the weird thing is, 30 years later, I still feel that little electric charge on the rare occasion that I see him around.
When I read this book back in the day it was ALL about Jesse and Ellie’s relationship. I believed that Jesse did, in his own way, care for Ellie. I excused his bad behavior because Ellie excused it. I wasn’t blind to Ellie’s grief, but I hadn’t experienced real grief yet and so, although I could sympathize, I couldn’t personally relate to that part of her story. I knew exactly how she felt with Jesse, though. I knew that “electrical current” and the “pleasure like mercury.”
So, how does the book hold up upon rereading? Um – it’s still freaking fantastic. And here’s why. McCloy is a beautiful writer. That has always mattered to me. From the book’s opening line:
Sometimes in my dreams you rise up as if from a swamp, whole, younger than I remember, dazzling, jagged, and I follow you into smoky rooms, overwhelmed by the sense of being in the presence of an untamed thing, full of light, impossible to control.
…until the final pages, McCloy’s writing is fluid and evocative and painfully honest. But we readers know that beautiful writing only goes so far; we have to care about the characters, too. From this vantage point (on the slippery downward slope), I want to tell Ellie what I’m sure she already knows: he’s not the right guy. But I never wanted to shake her and say “Ellie, you’re acting like an idiot.” Her grief is palpable. I feel it like she feels it “a fist, hard-knuckled and small.”
She is so clearly out of control and there is no one able to ease her pain. Her father is caught in his own. Dec is helpless in New York and when he arrives unexpectedly, his presence just muddies the waters. It’s easy to see why Jesse becomes the center of her universe. He doesn’t ask questions that she can’t answer. He doesn’t ask anything of her at all, he simply “hunted down [his] needs – simple and precise – and in those days, it was me.”
Velocity is a novel about loss. And grief. It just so happens that it also has some incredibly erotic sex scenes; trust me, you’ll feel it in your knees. But here’s something interesting about my reread: this time, for the first time ever, I cried.
Now I understand. Since the last time I read this book – and it’s been a few years – both my parents have passed away, my mom in 2006 and my dad in 2009. I get Ellie’s frantic desire to sublimate her grief. Everything about her journey seemed organic and honest to me. I ached for her. I missed my parents. I also missed, strangely, that feeling of being so crazy in love with someone that you can’t think straight. All those things are lost to me now.
Velocity is a special book. Thanks, Kristin, for writing it.