Desert Isle Keeper
Last Woman Standing
This book (and review) contains discussion of sexual assault.
Amy Gentry follows up Good as Gone with a tightly paced and morally murky thriller that combines the sweet, ancient pleasure a revenge story brings with the modern pain of the #metoo movement.
Dana Diaz is a rising stand-up comic at an important gig – the next rung on her battle to climb her way up the ladder of Austin, Texas’ club scene. Her next goal is to compete in the Funniest Person in Austin contest, a goal she’s unlikely to achieve due to a crowded field. Austin is Dana’s fresh start after years in Los Angeles and a pitch meeting turned into a disaster that’s estranged her from her best friend Jason, a rising fellow comic with whom she’s been friends since high school. She’s been trying hard to reinvent herself, but she’s bombing until one woman in the audience starts to laugh after Dana cuts a sexist heckler off at the knees. Amanda Dorn saves Dana’s night, and in gratitude Dana buys her a drink.
Amanda, it turns out, is a software engineer, and she understands only too well what it’s like to deal with indifference and cold, sexist and racist hostility. Amanda won a sexual harassment suit but the industry has blackballed her, so she went to LA to try acting, ending up back in Austin after breaking up with an emotionally abusive boyfriend. This bonds the two women, and a friendship springs up. Dana reveals that she was recently drugged and sexually assaulted by Aaron Neely, a comic she had admired, after the nightmarishly unsuccessful pitch meeting; when she learns from Dana that Neely will be judging the quarter-finals of the comedy contest, a fed-up Amanda uses her tech expertise to capture Neely at an extremely vulnerable moment and film it. But now that they’re blackmailing Neely with the footage, Amanda thinks that Dana should do her an equable favor – and she asks that Dana take out Doug Branchik, her sexually harassing supervisor, by making it look like he’s cheating on his wife. After dealing successfully with both Neely and Branchik, the list of people the women want to take revenge upon gets longer and longer. There’s the men who harassed Amanda online, and Fash, Dana’s sexist rival for Funniest Person in Austin. Soon, the women are engaged in a game of paranoia and revenge, satisfaction and fear, but eventually it’s not good enough to humiliate the people taunting them and things escalate – to assault and murder. Dana wants out, but Amanda has one more name on her list – and so does Dana – and she suggests they do the unthinkable; she’ll murder the man who raped Dana as a teenager, and Dana will murder Amanda’s emotionally abusive ex. Can Dana escape the tangled web of paranoia and lies she’s woven? And is playing with Amanda playing with fire, or is she really the best friend Dana’s ever had?
Last Woman Standing is one hell of a ride. Partially a Strangers on a Train pastiche, partially a modern thriller with all the trimmings, it calls out both sexually abusive creeps and those who take advantage of the healing of others to create chaos. It’s enthralling, and even though it’s laced with tropes you’re used to seeing, it feels very fresh and current.
Dana is a marvelous heroine, and quite easy to sympathize with. Hers is a journey toward independence from reliance on others, on easy stereotypes – and even the truth. This is a story about how Dana learns to claim herself from the maw of unoriginality, fear and banal revenge… by learning how to lie. The story wisely stays anchored in her PoV, and not a drop of plot fat is wasted in the telling. Dana’s head is always cluttered with pitch ideas, remnants of her haunting failure; when it becomes uncluttered, then you know you’re in for it.
Amanda, on the other hand, is an open book scribbled over with deceptive phrases. She is sometimes too smug to relate to, too overly confident, too in control of what’s happening, and occasionally seems too omniscient to be human. She doesn’t often feel as clever as the narrative needs her to be.
The key to the book is Dana’s relationship with Amanda, and Amanda’s relationship with Dana – and how that fits into Dana’s relationship with… Dana. It’s twisted and complicated and quite fascinating; a hall of mirrors of a narrative. Even when Dana creates Betty, a blonde, big-mouthed alter ego to get ahead, it’s a mirror of the mask she’s already put on to hide her double life of revenge with Amanda. Even in Dana’s other major relationship in the book, the one she has with her career, the dance of doubles continue.
The #metoo movement and the ugly revelations it’s brought to light hang over the narrative like smog over San Francisco Bay, along with the facile racism of Hollywood and the casual sexism of nerd culture. It’s impossible to avoid drawing a connecting line between Neely’s crimes and those of the various real-life celebrities who have come under fire recently; and it’s impossible to look at Amanda’s story and not feel the elephantine echoes of Silicone Valley’s sexist malaise.
There are a few small flaws, like a couple of too on-the-nose moments, such as calling Dana’s rival ‘Fash’, and a death that happens late in the book, which strains the bonds of irony and falls right into self-parody. Nothing will make you feel older than a flashback to Jason talking about watching Late Night with David Letterman and having to stop to Google jokes from his 1980s monologues, but it also dates the book.
None of this detracts from this intense, absorbing and darkly funny exploration of paranoia and revenge. Last Woman Standing is a winner – just don’t read it too close to bedtime.