Discovery and recovery in a Mojave casino town

by Alexa Mergen

Going Through Ghosts
Mary Sojourner
296 pages,
softcover: $25.
University of Nevada Press, 2010.

Shadows inhabit every corner of Mary Sojourner's newest novel, Going Through Ghosts -- spirits of ancestors and deceased friends, fragments of characters' souls. The settings -- casino coffee shops, riverside benches, buses -- are places a Westerner will recognize as haunts of the lonely and those in need of solace. With tender confidence, Sojourner takes the reader on a journey of love, loss, abandonment and death, revealing how friendship can exorcise a person's demons.

Maggie, a cocktail waitress, is the story's fulcrum. Generous and self-effacing, she hopes to stay sober, find companionship with a war veteran, and reconcile with her son. Sojourner's writing style evokes both the expansive beauty of the Mojave Desert and the dreary length of a casino server's days with a steady, even pace. Even the horrific murder of Maggie's friend, Sarah, is recounted with restraint.

Sarah returns as a ghost and enlists Maggie's help in figuring out her origins and identifying her killer. The characters' actions -- pouring a drink, making a knife, skateboarding -- have a dreamy quality, and Sarah's ghost blends in without disrupting realistic settings like the Las Vegas Strip or dissolving into fantasy.

Sojourner's short scenes shift often, providing glimpses of the insights the many characters achieve. The scenes' structure also reinforces how each person is responsible to any other who crosses her path, reminding us that what happens in between events matters as much as events themselves. Maggie's Pennsylvania Dutch aunt had a word for this: Zwischenraum, “the space between things.” A lover's touch, a son's goodbye, a meal served, a nap with a dog -- these beautifully rendered moments converge into a story that will linger with the reader. As she takes to an unfamiliar road to help her friends, “It occurred to Maggie that a straight highway across desolate land might be her favorite human creation.”

In Sojourner's competent hands, characters who have hidden their wounds from the world re-engage with it. “Her aunt,” Sarah remembers when she returns from death to find life's harsh answers, “believed love was the only ceremony necessary.” Sojourner's novel is loving and hopeful, a powerful antidote to bleak times.

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