Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

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(Reprinted from The New York Journal of Books)

Ex-cop and newly recovered addict Maggie Terry is utterly shattered when we meet her on the first day of her new job as detective at a small law firm. Maggie is desperate to rebuild herself, yet despite 18 months of rehab, she isn’t prepared for life outside a halfway house. Her apartment remains barren, without even a shower curtain, and with no towels Maggie must dry off with dirty old clothes. She can’t even remember to buy tea bags. She’s a mess, still furious at her ex-girlfriend’s intervention, still bitter she’s not allowed to see their child, and certain she’s going to screw up her new job.

The novel is billed as a mystery, but Schulman doesn’t get to it until 40 pages in when the strangling death of a minor actress is grandly announced to the law firm by a famous though aging co-star. From there, in classic Schulman style, she ricochets around the plot like a bullet in a drive-by.

Opening with the collapse of American politics and community, Schulman weaves disintegration throughout the novel, from the destruction of Maggie’s old self, to the loss of the corner grocer, the deaths of her ex-partner, her boss’s son, an unarmed street hustler, and the nameless actress, to the disappearance of her beloved city’s diversity, now a bland homage to homelessness and white gentrification.

Maggie works her new case in between trying to remember to get tea bags, reflecting petulantly on her ex-lover’s flaws, missing their child, attending 12-step meetings, despairing over the death of her old partner, refusing blame for her predicament, and wondering when in her lost and drunken years the city has changed so much. Amid all this, and despite herself, Maggie inches back to life. She begins trusting others instead of blaming and judging. She even surprises herself by starting to accept responsibility for the hash she’s made of her life.

Accountability, and the lack of, is stressed throughout: Maggie’s boss didn’t want to hear his son was a junkie, and now his son is dead; her ex-partner refused to accept that his son, also a cop, shot an unarmed black man, and in attempting to help his son evade punishment was himself killed; Maggie and all her fellow 12-steppers denied their addictions and lost great parts of their lives; the aging superstar denies her past and pays the price; a city that isolates itself behind wealth and mediocrity kills its vibrant essence, and a citizenry that doesn’t think elects leaders who selfishly encourage their ignorance and despair. Shulman spares no one.

For genre mystery fans Maggie Terry may disappoint. Minimal sleuthing is involved in the case of the dead actress, and what detective work there is involves Maggie leaping from one snap judgment to another. For readers interested in the deeper mysteries of human relationships, Maggie Terry delivers, with Schulman addressing the more trenchant mystery of how people and communities rebuild themselves after ruin.

As Schulman makes clear, our relationships are never perfect, but the imperfections are what make us human, and like Maggie Terry, so very fragile and hopeful. It is only in the pretense of perfection, in failing to acknowledge our flaws, that we fail each other and ultimately ourselves. In Maggie Terry the eponymous heroine learns not just “how to be accountable and survive” but how to be accountable and thrive.



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