—EAST HAMPTON INDEPENDENT by Joan Baum
“Finishing Hilary Thayer Hamann’s haunting, wise, and hip novel, Anthropology Of An American Girl may generate withdrawal symptoms. Such is the resonant effect of good writing that literary creations often claim hearts and minds in ways that make them seem more authentic than people we actually know.”
“[A] feisty, magnetic, sensitive heroine.”
“An ethnographic exploration of youth culture.”
“Anthropology Of An American Girl is being compared to Catcher in the Rye, but Evie is no virginal Holden Caulfield, though like him she has a capacity “for extremes” and an ardent, if ambivalent, desire to be understood.”
“A memorable extended cast of diverse characters.”
“A suspenseful narrative that tips toward violence toward the end.”
Finishing Hilary Thayer Hamann’s haunting, wise, and hip 600-page novel, Anthropology Of An American Girl may generate withdrawal symptoms because the story—compelling and appropriately long -- has now ended and the major players have melted into thin air. Call it the War and Peace syndrome: you’ve been living with these characters for so long and know them so intimately, it’s impossible to believe their lives have stopped where the author intended and yours goes on without them. Such is the resonant effect of good writing that literary creations often claim hearts and minds in ways that make them seem more authentic than people we actually know.
Covering five years from autumn 1979 to June 1984, with occasional flash backs, Hamann’s memoir-like novel, with its ear-perfect dialogue and erotic charge, captures what it was like to be a talented and intelligent 17-year old girl growing up on The East End and, later, in Manhattan. This is no chick-lit, pseudo-satiric woman’s book, however, but a sinewy coming-of-age critique, at times fiercely humorous, about love and friendship in the American eighties
The title is not incidental: Eveline (Evie) Auerbach, the feisty, magnetic, sensitive heroine is an “American Girl.” When her best friend Kate goes to Paris for a while, Evie, who once visited France with her high school class, cannot imagine not living in America. “For me there is no security greater or better than entrepreneurial security, cowboy security, the security of infinite possibility,” she reflects. “I was an American girl; I possessed what our culture valued most – independence and blind courage.” Still, Evie’s intelligence and confidence do not protect her from self-destructive instincts and harm from others.
Begun years ago as “personal writing never intended for public consumption,” Anthropology Of An American Girl was eventually self-published and achieved cult status. Now, several years later and “significantly reworked from the original,” it has been taken up by a “huge corporation,” though both author and publisher say that it remains “very much the same” in spirit and story.
Hamann, who holds a graduate certificate in anthropology, along with a Masters in history and cinema, was inevitably drawn to an ethnographic exploration of youth culture. Though readers will identify with her young narrator, Hamann’s anthropological perspective ensures that the seeing eye remains objective. Like data in a field study, for example, it’s reported that the parking lot at EHHS is full, but the main entrance to the school is empty “because no one ever hangs out on school steps and sings, the way they do in movies.” Coolly, candidly, Hamann describes high school rape, drug and alcohol abuse, the seductiveness of an attractive older guy, abortion, the death of dear friends (heroin, cancer), the ambiguities of loyalty, the corrupting power of big money.
Allusions, references and quotations from literature, art, philosophy and music inform chapters headings and content, starting with a line from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” about rediscovering oneself, and including Kurt Vonnegut’s shrewd observation that high school is “closer to the core of the American experience than anything” else. Hamann on her own, though, is no gnomic slouch. “The real truth behind college for every American is that high school graduates would cripple the job market and drain social services if their dependency was not extended.” Critiques are contemporary: a hedge-fund hot shot who would possess Evie by exploiting her fragility evidences Wall Street’s reliance on “nepotism, cronyism, extortion, insider trading, ordinance evasion.”
Anthropology Of An American Girl is being compared to Catcher in the Rye, but Evie is no virginal Holden Caulfield, though like him she has a capacity “for extremes” and an ardent, if ambivalent, desire to be understood. Her parents are divorced but friendly. Dad lives in the city with his long-time partner. Mom, a permissive child of the `60s, has a likable steady and teaches English at Southampton College. Kate’s French mother, Maman, however, is the more maternal presence and influence, but she will soon be diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
The narrative opens with Evie and Kate pedaling by Lily Pond Lane as “the sky set down, resting its gravid belly against the earth.” It’s late summer with senior year at EHHS coming up. Jack, a brilliant, articulate but troubled, anti-establishment soul, adores Evie -- she is his muse, he is her music -- but to follow his beat, she begins to see, would mean irrevocable descent. Enter Harrison Rourke, who shows up at the high school one day, having been asked by the principal to help out as a drama coach -- the senior class is doing ”Our Town,” for which the artistic Evie is designing the sets. One look and that’s it. Rourke’s smoldering black eyes bore in on her. She, unprepared for the intensity of his feelings and her own, is smitten. Rourke is older, a Stanford grad and, as it turns out, a semi-professional boxer with some heavy baggage in Jersey. Hamann creates a gorgeous sensual tension between them that becomes almost spiritual in its depth and frightening in its potential to overwhelm. But he leaves.
Anthropology has a memorable extended cast of diverse characters –hoods and nerds, bitches and bimbos, Bonackers and jet setters -- and its evocation of the local roads, beaches and main streets and the bars, restaurants, shops and stores of The Hamptons and Montauk thirty years ago will pull at the heartstrings. But the book also engages as a suspenseful narrative that tips toward violence toward the end. Anthropology is an instructive reminder that autobiographical prompts may fuel creative writing but should not be confused with autobiography. Fine fiction, as Anthropology shows, is always shaped by a critical, selective present.