Thursday, July 5, 2018

Review: OLD BUILDINGS IN NORTH TEXAS by Jen Waldo

I reviewed Old Buildings in North Texas (Arcadia Books) by Marble Falls's Jen Waldo for Lone Star Literary Life. Y'all, imagine if your cocaine addiction gave you a heart attack, sent you to rehab, back to your little hometown in the Panhandle, and your court-ordered therapist is a former high school friend from AP English.

CONTEMPORARY FICTION
Jen Waldo
Old Buildings in North TexasArcadia Books Ltd. (London)
Paperback, 978-1-9113-5017-0 (also available in hardcover, as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible), 215 pgs., $15.95
May 3, 2018

Olivia has returned to Caprock, a small fictional town in the Texas Panhandle. “Before they’d let me out of rehab someone had to agree to act as my legal custodian,” she explains, which is why thirty-two-year-old Olivia is living with her mother who, again, controls Olivia’s life from finances to laundry. “One little cocaine-induced heart attack and it’s back to my childhood to start over.”

Even better, Olivia’s court-ordered therapy is conducted by a former friend with whom she shared AP English classes in high school. Ouch. Olivia, who has an advanced journalism degree from Columbia, is also required by the court to hold down a job, but the only job she can find is behind the counter of a mall jewelry store which is owned by a friend of her mother’s. Olivia is in debt up to her nose in legal bills, medical bills, her Neiman’s card, and money she borrowed from friends to pay the rent and her car note since her salary went up that nose.

Olivia’s mother calls her every twenty minutes to confirm that her wayward daughter is where she’s supposed to be, which is either at home, at work, at her therapist’s office, at her cardiologist’s office, at meetings with her sponsor, or at meetings with her parole officer. Olivia, whose doctor has replaced cocaine with Xanax and Propranolol—both of which leave her detached and exhausted—is bored out of her skull so her therapist suggests she develop a hobby. While surfing the net for inspiration, Olivia discovers urbexing, urban exploration, which sounds a lot like trespassing. For her first expedition, Olivia chooses a long-abandoned mansion and takes a Chatty Cathy doll with her as a souvenir when she leaves. When she discovers how much that doll is worth to collectors, Olivia decides this new hobby could be lucrative enough to launch her into a new life, again independent and free.

Old Buildings in North Texas is the latest novel from Jen Waldo of Marble Falls, Texas. Waldo has created an original concept, entertaining until the end, where she eschews the expected conclusion. Fast-paced and flowing smoothly, these 215 pages pack plot twists aplenty. There’s a lot going on in Old Buildings in North Texas and it works because Waldo’s style is an efficient, evocative economy of words, her characters fleshed-out just enough to intrigue. Olivia’s first-person narration is infused with sardonic humor (her heart now beats “a larcenous rhythm”) and dry wit (“addiction recovery makes me cranky”).

“I viewed myself as smarter, more talented, unique, non-traditional,” Olivia admits. “But these are shallow comparatives; none of them was a bit of help when I stumbled.” Stumbled she did and does, through old buildings—office complex, church, schoolhouse, drive-in theater concession—encountering rattlesnakes, bats, skunks, and other critters in her search for valuables—vintage hardware, Tiffany lamps, gumball machines—others have abandoned.

“Where did my scruples go, and why?” Olivia wonders, but not in depth or often. An adrenaline junkie who overdosed on adrenaline, she’s fast shedding illusions about herself. Olivia knows who she is. And she’s okay with that. So are we.

Originally published in Lone Star Literary Life.

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