Desert Isle Keeper
Claudia Dey’s punchy, surprising and rather intensely unique Heartbreaker takes a look at the life of Pony Darlene Fontaine, who must go on a rather enormous and heroic quest to discover what’s happened to her mother, Billie Jean.
Dissatisfied with her conscripted life and possibly feeling suicidal, Billie Jean walks away from her family during a cold October evening, taking the family truck but leaving behind her shoes and coat. She also leaves behind her teenage daughter, Pony Darlene, and Pony’s father, The Heavy, who bears the weight of the community on his back, and who is panicked by Billie Jean’s unexplained disappearance. But Pony is not willing to sit back and do nothing. She decides to track her mother down – even though the search may take her beyond the boundaries of the territory – accompanied by her dog, Gena Rowlands (like the actress), a feral, unworldly creature who deeply loved Billie Jean (and with whom she may even have shared a psychic connection) – and Will, whose secrets bind him inextricably to Pony, The Heavy, and Billie. The wait for Billie’s return is long, heartbreaking and arduous, and each part of the journey is told in a different voice – Pony’s, the dog’s, and Will’s – who, due to the odd naming conventions of the territory, is known as Supernatural (or Supes).
Heartbreaker is a fever dream of a novel, a hallucination, grounded and bitter and a little bit morbid, fantastic and unearthly and confusing and yet enthralling. Think of it as Winter’s Bone meets Blossom meets Timothy Leary meets the better parts of M. Night Shyamalan. There’s a lot going on under the surface, and a lot going on under the meta of the novel’s mis en scene. There are many strange rules and customs afoot; naming conventions for dogs, wardrobe and behavior conventions for people. As you can tell from the names and themes used here, this is a poisoned love letter to the eighties, much in the vein of Ready Player One, only without much fondness for the nostalgia it displays. Women wear track suits and people listen to cassette tapes; they brag that they know Who Shot JR and crush on Rick Ocesek from The Cars. They are stuck permanently in 1985, and no one knows why. There is a dark, secret reason for all of this, and the book reveals it slowly as if it’s peeling back the layers of an onion. Consider it a commentary on the latest obsession with eighties reboots. On the place of womanhood. About the limitations of cults. Or consider it one good, cracking yarn.
Pony, Gena, and Supernatural each has something to say, each has something to bring to the narrative pot. To say much more would reveal way too much about the book and its secret aims, but they’re all compelling in their own special way, with Pony and Supes being very much two relatable teenagers and Gena’s unique wolflike perspective adding something new to the bookending narratives. The world-building, in fact, is quite fascinating. I really wish the novel had spent much more time doing it.
Heartbreaker’s biggest flaw is that it’s sometimes hard to follow the thrust of the narrative, which zips and zooms hallucinogenically between anecdotes. Sometimes this can be disorientating, and it will take reading an entire paragraph to fully replace yourself back into the story as it zooms off onto another tangent. My only other real problem is the almost storybook nature of the ending, which doesn’t match the blood and guts viciousness of the book in general.
Heartbreaker is a difficult to define reading experience; it’s one of the most unique books I’ve ever read, and while it was sometimes a struggle to get to the end, the experience was richly rewarding. It’s one of the best and strangest reading experiences I’ve had all year.