Dreams Conferred

David Haynes
All American Dream Dolls
Milkweed Editions

CAN ANYONE TELL me what "douche spray" is? I've just read a whole novel in which this product plays a running part, and I still don't know for sure. In fact, part of the joke in All American Dream Dolls is that lots of people have no idea what the stuff is for, and all the ads about "feeling less than fresh" don't help matters. The book's heroine, a Minneapolis ad exec named Deneen, has a month or two to come up with a campaign to sell douche spray to women in Asia--if her feminist principles, no-bullshit attitude, and temporary dementia don't ruin things first. But then Deneen has a hard time just coming up with euphemisms for the area this product targets: "Down there, the land between the legs, the happy place, Jennifer, my regions, personal area..."

Welcome to the newest concoction from St. Paul novelist/schoolteacher David Haynes, author of last year's Heathens and Live at Five. Haynes's unmistakable voice and crafty narrative skills are still sharp, and he's just as funny as ever. He doesn't shift POV with a chameleon's swagger here (as he did in last year's titles) but does something at least as difficult: Haynes seamlessly narrates Deneen's mental trip from sanity to the warm embrace of "Mother Madness" and back again, keeping us giggling the whole time.

Make no mistake: This is not a deep book. And to describe Haynes as "one of the best--and the truest--chroniclers of black lives today," as the book jacket does, is misleading and condescending. Can you imagine, for example, someone describing Judith Viorst as "one the truest chroniclers of white lives today"? Like any good writer (or, in this case, one of America's "top 25 writers under 40," as identified by Granta last year), Haynes focuses on specifics--in this case, the idiosyncratic habits and psyches of a few well-off, Midwestern African Americans.

Much like LaDonna, the eccentric heroine of Heathens, Deneen Wilkerson has a cockeyed view of life that quickly seduces the reader. Her mental breakdown begins on a weekend getaway to Door County with her eight-month boyfriend, Calvin. On the way to this bourgeois haven, Calvin cans Deneen (later informing her he's attracted to men). She overreacts and handles it badly: "My next plan [was] to say, oh yeah, well, I dump you first, or I dump you back. As if this were junior high school all over again. I have to tell you that it pissed me off worse than a sticky toilet seat that Calvin got to dump me before I dumped him. Wasn't that always the way? Hadn't it always been the way? Why was that always the way? Why?"

Deneen abandons her condo, her job, and her friends in Minneapolis and, zombie-like, heads to St. Louis to see the mother and half-sister she abandoned herself some 12 years earlier. She descends straight to the basement, and spends the next few months watching daytime talk shows, scarfing yummy junk food, and fading in and out of sensibility. She gains a little wisdom from Oprah/Ricki/Sally/Jenny/Jerry, and also discovers that sex can be really great when you're slightly unhinged--even if it's solo sex in the shower, just you and the loofah. Meanwhile, Deneen's "toxic" sister, Ciara, a hateful brat, spies on her and prepares for the All American Dream Dolls little-girl pageant. When shuttling Ciara to and from rehearsals, Deneen receives tough-love hair treatments from Ciara's coach, Hawkins, a demon stylist and acid-tongued queen.

But even as she regains clarity, Deneen's life lacks an awful lot: an ethical purpose, to start. She fights to protect Ciara from the sexist messages of pageants, but still makes a mint off douche spray (using black models to sell the stuff, no less). Toward the end, Deneen reflects on contemporary culture: "... many days I feel like a first-class passenger on the Titanic. The food's great and the accommodations are terrific, but just look what's on the schedule for tomorrow night." But ultimately, Deneen is a compromiser. "That's how life is, I guess," she rationalizes. "What can one do but stock up on flotation devices and hope for a seat in the lifeboat?" Of course, we're not sure if it's meant as an ironic lesson or simply as a reflection of conventional "wisdom." Haynes, apparently, isn't much interested in big resolutions, and the book's denouement is its most awkward section, seeming flimsy and almost tacked-on.

Perhaps Haynes should tackle a serial in the vein of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Like Maupin's, Haynes's writing falls somewhere between the supermarket paperback and the literary novel (whatever that might mean in today's market). He writes snappy dialogue and knows how to keep us turning the page. Best of all, he loves his characters as if they were his own children--even the prodigal ones. Judging from the ending, it appears that Haynes doesn't want their stories to end; we don't, either.

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