A social worker struggles to improve both her clients’ lives and her own half-buried one, in an intriguingly fragmented debut by the musician and storyteller (The Medicine Burns, 1995).
In its opening pages, Klein’s narrator Carrie details her experiences as a caseworker in Iowa City, whence she has recently moved from California—and, as staggered flashbacks reveal, a dangerous relationship with client Victor Hernandez Lopez, a charismatic heroin-addicted ex-con. Carrie’s compulsive “attraction to doomed and stunted things” is similarly shown to be rooted in her past; specifically, in severed relationships with her career criminal father, a hopeless recidivist, and her recently deceased manic-depressive mother. In Iowa City, Carrie finds herself bonding with new client Hannah Fisher, a withdrawn young woman burdened with a history of bad choices and lethal violence that almost exactly mirrors Carrie’s. As the two realize how alike they are, they grow closer, and, in a rather feverish dénouement, exorcise their separate demons, and experience an exchange of identities. Much of Tiny Ladies—which reads like a bizarre combination of Dostoevsky, Jim Thompson, and Robert Altman—is over the top, and it’s hard to stay with Klein’s irretrievably downbeat characters. But the writing is often brutally exquisite. Carrie’s numbed despair is very skillfully rendered, and the gradually accreting structure of the numerous flashback scenes (particularly those that reveal Carrie’s conflicted, incipiently incestuous feelings toward her father) carry an impressive raw emotional charge. There’s just simply too much of everything: sex, drugs, guilt, alienation, regret, anomie.
A bold and worthwhile attempt. But one wonders whether Klein’s very real gift for compacted intensity is better suited to the short-story form.