TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of a recent novel that she says, through the vehicle of comic fiction, takes readers on a road trip through struggling towns and farmlands of rural America. It's called "St. Christopher On Pluto." It's by Nancy McKinley.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I'm feeling so cooped up these days - who isn't? - that I sometimes find myself getting in the car and taking aimless rides to nowhere. Maybe that's what prompted me to finally check out an on-the-road novel that came out in February, right before the pandemic brought life as we know it to a hard stop.
Nancy McKinley's novel, constructed out of a series of interlocking stories, is called "St. Christopher On Pluto." Note that odd title. It summons up, first, a Catholic saint, who was demoted because of questions about his historical veracity, and Pluto, once a planet but now demoted to a dwarf planet.
Demoted or diminished is how you might think of the northeastern Pennsylvania setting of this novel. Once, the area around Wilkes-Barre boasted industry family farms and coal mines. But in recent times, the region has been scarred by unemployment and the opioid epidemic.
In McKinley's novel, two hometown gals ride around this terrain in a vintage Buick nicknamed Big Blue. Mary Katherine - MK for short - is a quiet woman who inherited the Buick from her grandmother. Colleen is the madcap troublemaker. In the opening story here, Colleen cons MK into helping her commit insurance fraud by ditching her own Honda hatchback clunker in a remote ravine. "St. Christopher On Pluto" drew me in by its humor, but like the best comic fiction, it's constructed out of insider social observations, observations that sting as much as they amuse.
We learn early on that MK and Colleen first met in the 1960s, when they were students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School. They'd lost touch but ran into each other again in late midlife, both working at the local mall. Colleen has a job at the Hallmark store. MK works as a manager at Waldenbooks, which, over the course of this novel, is bought out by Borders, which is in turn bought out by Books-A-Million, until the entire wheezing mall itself is bought out by foreign investors who plan to gut the space for a fracking truck depot.
Bossy Colleen prides herself on being a do-gooder, always ready to push MK and Big Blue into volunteer work, which takes the two white women and this novel on road trips deep into the less-traveled corners of northeast Pennsylvania.
Some stories here grow out of the casual relationships the women form through their jobs at the mall. For instance, a teenager named Tiffany, who works at the food court, stars in the poignant penultimate story, where she runs with MK and Colleen in a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot charity race. She's psyched because she's got a lead on a waitressing job at the Jersey Shore. And then, approaching the finish line, she trips, and you get the sense that she's never going to make it.
Other stories take notice of old-timers, like The Pumpers, a group of senior citizens who've survived heart attacks and power walk at the mall. They've been left behind as their kids moved away.
It's the newer residents of the Wilkes-Barre area, however, who inspire McKinley's most unexpected weddings of screwball humor to social criticism. In a standout story called "Navidad," the two friends volunteer at a church Christmas party. Here's MK describing the harebrained beginning of this particular car ride.
(Reading) Colleen yanks open the passenger door of Big Blue. She wears a red sweater matched by a voluminous skirt that cascades over her knees. Ho, ho. You like? She asks. Her fingers tug at silver garland edging the hem. My skirt was half price at Salvo. I smile, knowing how Colleen takes pride in snagging deals at the Salvation Army thrift store. It's handmade, but the seams aren't finished. No clasp at the waist, so I use duct tape. And that's when I realize she's wearing one of those round felt covers people put under Christmas trees. I decide not to say anything.
The tone shifts when the women arrive at the church, where the kids - all Latinx - are jammed into the church hall. Because of the sometimes violent local resentment against the newcomers, the church is keeping quiet about this party. As MK tells us, there will be no human interest clips on the local news; leave it to Colleen to involve me in a convert Christmas party.
Covert is a good way to characterize how this droll novel-in-stories delivers its social commentary. It's so entertaining to go along for the ride with MK and chatty Colleen, and because of their wry, sometimes bumbling suck-it-up resiliency, it's also possible to take in these hard-luck landscapes and see some possibility amidst all the losses.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the novel "St. Christopher On Pluto" by Nancy McKinley.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how we can train ourselves to breathe in ways that may improve our health, the quality of our sleep and decrease anxiety and why mouth-breathing is related to snoring, sleep apnea and other problems. My guest will be journalist James Nestor, author of the book "Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art." I hope you'll join us.
I'm Terry Gross. We'll close today's show with Peggy Lee. She was born 100 years ago today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST FOR A THRILL")
PEGGY LEE: (Singing) Just for a thrill, you changed the sunshine to rain. Just for a thrill, you filled my heart with pain. To me, you were my pride and joy. But to you, I was merely a toy, a plaything you could toss around at will. Just for a thrill, you made my life... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.