Stephanie Powell Watts. No One Is Coming to Save Us. New York: Harper, 2017. Print.
I picked this recent release up because a pre-publication review said there were conscious connections with The Great Gatsby, a novel that I often teach. It does that, but in a more subtle way. It is not a retelling of the story like An Authentic Derivative, nor is it rooted in the Gatsby mythos like The Double Bind. This is a tale about the poorer rural South, not the sporty South of Daisy Fay Buchanan and Jordan Baker.
The lives of most of the characters are sad—not tragic, just pathetic. All but one are blacks who got off to a poor start because of segregation, but that was long enough ago that many of the people only know about it because of what the old people remember. If there is any external factor affecting them, it is the gradual silencing of the furniture factories in the area.
Still, we readers sense that they have no one to blame but themselves. Drink and drugs tempt most of them. Each character has extramarital relations. About halfway through the book it was beginning to feel as if Peyton Place had relocated to the town of Pinewood in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Ava learns that not only has her husband Harry been cheating on her, but his white girlfriend has had a son by him—and Ava cannot keep a pregnancy for more than eight weeks. But Ava had been sleeping around before she got married and may be having a fling with J.J. Ferguson. Ava’s mother Sylvia knows that her own husband Don has a mistress that is over a decade younger than his daughter. But Sylvia had been the mistress of an older married man herself, and Ava suspects her of having an affair with an old friend Jimmy Martin.
There are a number of other similar things thrown in. I was just saying to myself, Why can’t anyone keep their pants on?
In spite of those things, Watts writes well and finds some tenderness in all the characters. Sylvia and Don live apart but seem to enjoy the occasions they get together. Henry is a loser, but he wants to do right by both Ava and his son. Ava does have a college education and a good job at the local Wells Fargo. (This book is very recent; we are reminded that it used to be a Wachovia).
Into all of this comes J.J. Ferguson, or as he prefers to be called now, Jay. Jay had a crush on Ava when they were in high school. His family were complete down-and-outers. Both he and his sister moved away a long time ago to start new lives. Jay has returned to Pinewood after twenty years and built a mansion in the hills that looks over the town. From his porch he can see the green roof of Ava’s house. He tells Sylvia that he can recapture the past. Yeah, he’s a Gatsby.
Although J.J. is on everyone’s minds at different times—a poor hometown boy who has struck it rich—he only appears in perhaps five or ten percent of the story. The book is really about Sylvia and Ava.
J.J. does offer Ava a way out, but ultimately she won’t take his proposal any more than Daisy ended up with Gatsby. (And we really have no idea how J.J. made his money. At least Fitzgerald drops a few hints about Gatsby’s “bond business.”)
Watts writes well. Even when the characters are doing something stupid, and usually they are, we understand their motives and rationalizations. Chapter 36 is a curiosity. It is two pages describing the closing of Simmy’s, a greasy burger joint that used to be segregated and finally closes fifty years after integration. Simmy’s perhaps symbolizes the fate of the town of Pinewood, but the curious thing about the chapter is that it is the only part of the novel (364 pages) that is written in the first person. Who is this speaking?
The book does end on an upbeat note. Ava makes a decision that seems somewhat noble and is acting conscientiously concerning it. This Jay, unlike Mr. Gatsby, does not die, though he still inhabits a dream world. If there is a message in No One Is Coming to Save Us, it is the stereotypical feminist one: Women do not need men.
Yes, we can blame the men in this tale for being losers or being unfaithful, but the women are not that different. How wonderful if the men could love the women (Ephesians 5:25) and the women respect the men (Ephesians 5:22 MESSAGE)! I think I read somewhere that that was God’s plan. But what if, as the title tells us, you really believe there is no savior? Watts would echo that old country song: “Even a bad love is better than no love.”