Imagine eating a hotdog at a backwoods roadside stand with a pole dancer who’s reading Flannery O’Connor out loud and there’s just enough red clay in the air to make the hotdog gritty. That’s what it’s like to read Proof of Me by Erica Plouffe Lazure.
The short story collection is a literary version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The child of a teenage mom whose mother is dead in the bedroom upstairs becomes the niece of a guy whose classic Dodge Charger was pulverized in a demolition derby and the wannabe love interest of a woman who stole the purse of a divorcee wearing no pants and a Bangles tee-shirt. Themes of loss, depression and misplaced sexuality tie the stories to one another as characters float out of one story and into another like lost balloons at a parking lot fair. The language is raw, brutal, and often hauntingly poetic in its simplicity.
Proof of Me is a trailer park acid trip through a one-stoplight-town barbecue, with the sun glinting off sweaty foreheads and bottles of homemade moonshine. Set in a small, North Carolina town, the author has created characters that sing through the stereotypes we expect to find in the rural South, like Demolition Derby drivers raising the daughter their sister abandoned and little girls raised in mud and mechanic shops experimenting with art and their sexuality and volunteering to help children in poverty-ravaged villages in India. They are complex, desperately unique and expertly voiced, with dialogue, descriptions and choices that become a literary abstract painting — unexpected and so often completely open to interpretation. The characters and situations bring to mind Tolstoy’s quote from Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is perfectly expressed in the characters of Proof of Me.
This collection has a specificity of grief, dysfunction, and connection-seeking that is unlike anything I have ever read before. Readers who have never experienced small-town life and the people who populate it will still appreciate the humor of the book, but for those of us from the South who have regularly made the trek to small Southern towns that feel as though border crossing should require a passport, this book will resonate in a whole different way, and some character somewhere in this book will bring a relative to mind who got a DUI on a tractor, or who spent the better part of their life on the demolition derby circuit. Proof of Me tips its hat to the small towns of the South, while at the same time, shakes its head in disbelief, muttering, “Y’all ain’t right.”
The timeline can be challenging for readers who have difficulty with non-linear plot lines. For example, there’s a scene where we see a Buddha statue from India and forty pages later, a character acquires it. As a reader with processing differences, it’s difficult to jump between both characters and points in time and still stay connected to the narrative and how the characters are related to one another. Though each story can stand alone, it does enrich the experience when the reader gets that ah-ha moment — oh, that’s the sister of the girl we met earlier.
The writing is the real star of the show. It’s raw and authentic, which is an interesting dichotomy considering the characters are often completely bizarre. I think the character that is the most complex and simultaneously the easiest to connect with is Juniper. Some of the best writing in the book is when we follow her character to India: ”Freshly kicked out of her summer ashram program for an unfortunate and spectacularly public run-in with illicitly procured ganja and a large bottle of Tuborg, Juniper decided to take the first train bound for Bodh Gaya – the Center of the Universe, she’d heard more than once.” The descriptions are so vivid, specific and heartbreaking that we’re right there with her for every moment. It is those moments that anchor the reader to the humanity of characters that can often be so outside of our own experiences.
Proof of Me is an unusual and challenging read, but the author’s observations about the grief, loss, disappointment, longing, and desperate need to be loved and accepted for who we are is beautifully and expertly conveyed in every story.
Proof of Me
By Erica Plouffe Lazure
New American Press
Published March 24, 2022