Let’s No One Get Hurt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2018, 256 pp., $26
In Jon Pineda’s deeply satisfying, often startling second novel, Let’s No One Get Hurt, fifteen-year-old Pearl is a girl long on suffering yet short on self-pity. She resides in a ramshackle, impoverished boathouse somewhere in the American South, on the verdant banks of an unnamed river, with her ruined father, his old friend Dox, and Dox’s military veteran son, Fritter. “These men,” Pearl observes deep into the novel, “are a sad bunch.”
This is a rich brew from the start, and it gets richer still with the addition of Main Boy, the dangerous high school-aged son of the super-wealthy owners of all the adjacent land, and perhaps even of the land on which the squatter settlement stands. “The flecks in his beige eyes,” Pearl says, “look like midges I sometimes find wriggling on the river’s surface, just before a fish rises to gulp them down.”
Pearl is, one hopes, unlike any fifteen-year-old girl out there, as a young child nearly coaxed into joining her mother in a botched suicide attempt in front of a hospital, then abandoned by her to live with her downwardly spiraling father, who obsesses about his lost wife while growing no longer competent to retain his tenured university professorship. Pearl and Main Boy bear not even a remote resemblance to Romeo and Juliet; he’s a guy who would never kill himself for her, let alone even buy her a dress, but she does love him, or love at least some elements of him: his Warhol-like hair and physique, his beautiful bathroom with a tub that “looks like the bottom of a giant clamshell,” his freshly sheeted and sumptuous bed, his fully stocked kitchen. After all, she lives in a place without water or electricity, has rarely known what it means to be absolutely clean, and is lucky if she eats half a meal a day.
The novel is a remarkably understated saga, as Pearl and her family face several nearly catastrophic challenges, but it is wonderfully spiked with Pearl’s clear-eyed, poetic and deftly intelligent voice. She absorbs one humiliation after the next, several encounters of pure insult, and stark physical dangers that keep the reader constantly engaged in in a kind of pleasurably dizzying dread. What continues to inform and balance the narrative are the wit of her makeshift family, the creepy and yet somehow poignant memories of her mother, and the impossible but credible resilience of this unlikely but deeply persuasive cast of characters.
The culminating segments are painful—in the best way—to read, as Pearl stares down a final and perhaps fatal and intensely evil plot against her. But her resilience, and her loving “brother” Fritter, save her. It’s not, as indicated, pure rescue, for throughout her strange and beguiling tale it’s understood that, despite her circumstances and despite the treatment she suffers from those who could have loved her more deeply, she is the one who has not only been saving others around her, but has also been saving herself. “We girls,” after all, as Pearl notes, “are not precious.” But the boys are “as fragile as glass.” Perhaps the long-lost mother wrings a more obvious but necessary conclusion, in a foreshadowing observation: “We’re all animals.”
The author of three previous books of poetry, another novel, and a memoir, Jon Pineda demonstrates yet again that he can do it all: create and maintain a unique and compelling voice, and craft a surprising and resonant narrative that is constantly entertaining. In Let’s No One Get Hurt, too many do, and the art of enduring is only surpassed by the art of the work.
Fred Leebron has published four novels and over fifty short stories. For years he was the Bookshelf Advisor to Ploughshares, and has also reviewed books for the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Provincetown Arts, and other venues. Awards for his writing include an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize.