Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

The best literary novelists have the ability to conjure up worlds that most readers never have experienced, people them with complex, fully formed characters, and launch those characters into compelling narratives that keep you turning the pages. Elizabeth Wetmore has accomplished that rare and difficult feat in her brilliant first novel, Valentine (Harper, 320 pp. $26.99, hardcover and Kindle)

In it, Wetmore—an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum—gives us an indelible portrait of the place where she was born and raised, the West Texas oil patch, centered on the hardscrabble town of Odessa. The action (and there’s plenty of it) begins on Valentine’s Day 1976 with the brutal rape of 14-year-old girl named Gloria Ramirez.

In the succeeding chapters Wetmore spins out the stories of seven women and girls whose lives become entwined following the arrest of the man who committed the crime. All of them—including the two main characters, Mary Rose Whitehead, a young mother who came to Gloria Ramirez’s aid, and Corrine Shephard, a recently widowed retired schoolteacher—come alive in Wetmore’s capable hands. So does the stark physical landscape of the oil patch and the day-to-day lives of the men, women, and children who live and work there.

Two of the book’s lesser but important characters are Vietnam War veterans: Gloria’s Uncle Victor, who did two tours in the war and is scraping out a living in the oil fields, and Jesse Belden, a down-on-his luck former Army tunnel rat barely surviving in Odessa. To Wetmore’s enormous credit, she does not portray them as stereotypical maladjusted Nam vets. Far from it. She gives us word portraits of both men as multidimensional human beings.

Victor is a humble, decent man who has adjusted as well as can be expected since he came home from the war. As she does with all of her characters, Wetmore beautifully illuminates the psyches of Victor and Jesse. Here, for example, is how she lets us know the main lesson Victor learned from his time in the war:

Of “all the things he learned during the war—that living to see another day is almost always a matter of stupid luck, that men who know they might die any minute can learn not to give a shit about who’s the All-Star and who’s the Mexican, or that heroism is most often small and accidental but it still means the world—the greatest lesson was this: nothing causes more suffering than vengeance.”

As for Jesse, he is not faring well in 1976. He suffers physically from hearing loss and emotionally from flashbacks to a horrific incident in a VC tunnel. That’s in addition to the vicious treatment the physically small man is subjected to by many of the denizens of the oil patch. This “small and frightened critter,” as Wetmore puts it in a particularly harrowing scene, is a simple, naïve, good man.

Wetmore even manages to include a bit of sly humor in the book, mainly in the form of corny jokes that mock the West Texas oil patch. Such as: “What the difference between a bucket of shit and Odessa? The bucket.”

In addition to Mary Rose and Corrine, the book’s third main character is an 11-year old girl named Debra Ann. The novel’s exciting and harrowing penultimate scene brings the troubled but good-hearted girl together with Corrine, Jesse, and Mary Rose in a heart-stopping encounter in the desert. It’s tour-de-force writing that would fit in a first-rate thriller. And it puts an exclamation point on this terrific novel.

The author’s website is elizabethwetmore.com

–Marc Leepson