When Hannah Pittard ("Reunion," "The Fates Will Find Their Way") joins Kevin Brockmeier for a reading at the Oxford American Annex next Tuesday, it'll be Pittard's first time in front of an Arkansas audience. The Georgia native recently published her third novel, "Listen to Me," a road trip story featuring a childless couple and their dog as they make their annual trip to the husband's family in Virginia. Seems straightforward enough. Been there, done that, right? Nope, not quite. Like a good horror tale, they stumble from the get-go, take unsafe exits, and Pittard forces the reader to question the reliability of two narrators, and to admit whose story we find more credible.
Mark and Maggie appear to be a typical upper middle-class couple approaching the sunrise of middle age; financially sound and educated — overall, content. From the beginning, though, there's tension; they oversleep (of all things!) and now they're running late. The Chicago interstates continue to clog, and they argue about who is doing what in their departure preparations. Frustrated sighs resonate throughout the opening chapters, and though Pittard leaves them off the page, she writes so well we can hear them in our own heads. Something is off between Mark and Maggie: Not only is Maggie dealing with the emotional aftereffects of having been mugged recently, but both are beginning to secretly question the durability of their marriage. Pittard lets us into the headspace of both characters; we simultaneously know what each is thinking while they're sitting a foot apart, locked in a car, their destination hundreds of miles away. Mark thinks Maggie is a wimp for allowing the mugging to so adversely impact her life, and Maggie thinks Mark has sexual desires for another woman. If it wasn't for their loveable dog, Gerome, who provides a needed distraction and mutual focus, it's possible this road trip would never happen.
Once they finally get out of Chicago and pass through Gary, Ind., Maggie ponders the horrifying fate of those who live there. "Gary wasn't just a place to die. It was, as far as she was concerned, a place to be killed. It was a place to hate your life." Put simply, "Bad things happened in Gary." On the surface, it's the complete opposite of Maggie and Mark's life, but because of her assault, Maggie now seems more acutely sensitive to the psychological impact of violence for which, from the interstate, Gary is a towering representation — rusted, inoperable machinery, a community deluged in brutality and overwhelming helplessness; a clear symbol of what's not supposed to happen to people like her.
After Gary, they begin their diagonal cut through Indiana and first learn about the violent storms in their direct path. (What's a road trip without bad weather?) It's at this point in the novel that I got the first whiff of a possible Patricia Highsmith plot, and began to think we were headed straight for an invisible crime scene; that one of the characters — although I couldn't decide which — was manipulating all of us and would, ultimately lead us all overboard. As the story continued, closely confined to the moving car, I kept visualizing myself as the omniscient helicopter shot in the opening of "The Shining," awaiting their inevitable plunge from the rain-soaked roads. In fact, at the midpoint of "Listen to Me," Pittard briefly halts the novel and asks the reader to consider this very viewpoint. "And now a pause ... jump skyward. ... Move higher, higher, until you have attained the perfect perspective, the better perspective. ... Look down. Can you see it? Can you see the automobile?"
It's precisely those Highsmith and Kubrick elements that make this novel so captivating. Pittard's "Listen to Me" refuses to follow a single set of genre rules, and there's great freedom that arises from that choice. The chapters are perfectly paced, and the writing is nimble and easy to absorb, and Pittard, thankfully, allows the characters to tell the story. I spoke to Pittard recently about the novel, and asked her how "Listen to Me" compares to her other two books. "This book is exactly what I wanted it to be, every word, every sentence," she said. Those are words worth keeping in mind when confronted with the novel's startling conclusion. Maybe the road trip to Virginia is, after all, exactly what Maggie and Mark needed it to be.
Pittard joins Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Kevin Brockmeier ("A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip," "The Brief History of the Dead," "Things That Fall From the Sky") for readings and conversation at the Oxford American Annex 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30. Admission is free.