TO conceive or not to conceive? That is the question at the heart of The Stud Book, the funny, sad, and irreverent second novel by Monica Drake, whose 2007 debut, Clown Girl, was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. The four female protagonists in the new book have each answered the question in their own way, but the consequences of their decisions play out uneasily, hilariously, and sometimes painfully, over the course of a Pacific Northwest winter.
The story centers on a group of friends teetering on the edge of middle age. They are the rare sort of Portland natives who drank at Satyricon and “saw Poison Idea and Nirvana before Cobain really made it”—not unlike Drake herself. But deep roots do not necessarily make sturdy trees, and each grapples hard with the reality, or simply the idea, of having children. Ethnologist Sarah, obsessed with procreation in the wake of multiple miscarriages, has the ironic job of cataloging animal mating behavior at the Oregon Zoo. (The titular stud book is a zoo’s “record of who has sex, who’s born, who lives fast and dies young.”) High school dropout Georgie now has a PhD, a newborn, and a husband who plays a gruesome drinking game called “dead girl shots.” (A female corpse on TV? Bottoms up!) Dulcet Marvel, a “tall, cool waterfall of a woman raised on Ritalin and Benadryl, built to last, entirely anti-baby,” wears an anatomically correct latex suit to educate high schoolers about birth control. And Nyla, with one daughter in college and another sliding toward juvenile delinquency, is unexpectedly pregnant by a man she met speed-dating.
“WHY HAUL ANOTHER LITTLE UTERINE HOSTAGE INTO THE WORLD TO SUFFER THROUGH A RIGGED GAME?”
In alternating chapters—many of them nimbly crafted set pieces of comedy, desperation, or frustration—these women struggle to care for themselves and those they love. Postpartum Georgie feels like “a hippo,” so Dulcet tries to boost her morale with a nude photo session, while Sarah teaches her husband, Ben, to apply makeup to cover the black eyes he suffered in a botched masturbatory escapade. Drake, who demonstrated her fearlessness when it comes to the absurd in Clown Girl, turns her sharp eye on everything from religious cults to snow leopard sex. Clumsiness abounds, both emotional and otherwise (Did a character just trip and fall? Bottoms up!), but so does genuine and deeply moving affection.
The Stud Book is a spirited group portrait, full of the messiness of life. In it Drake reminds us, earnestly and poignantly (and in echt Portland fashion), of the importance of community: whether you conceive or not, you need a mate, a family, a best friend—or better yet, a gang of them. As Drake notes on the book’s very first page, not even an earthworm—or, in her visceral prose, “a hermaphroditic sex organ burrowing through dark earth”—can go it all alone.
Monica Drake will read from The Stud Book April 12, 7:30, at Powell's City of Books.