Trash Lit: Grafton's craft in 'U is for Undertow'

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U is for Undertow
Sue Grafton
Putnam. 403 pages, $27.95

I love the Sue Grafton books. I bought A is for Alibi in 1983, when it came out, and I’ve read every one of them since. Unlike, say, Patricia Cornwell, whose characters age (and get crabbier) as time passes, Kinsey Milhone is eternal, always young, always living in a town called Santa Teresa that’s a lot like Santa Barbara, always living with her old (but never dying) landlord, Henry, always eating at the foul Hungarian restaurant down the street. Milhone is a comfortable protagonist, never deeply tortured, but never exactly adjusted either, and even her OCD habits (locking her car – and telling us she locked her car – about 50 times a book) are endearing.

This one’s set in 1988, where Milhone is quite at home, and in 1963-1967, where Sue Grafton is less so. Grafton’s got a problem with hippie chicks – one of the central villains in U is for Undertow is a girl named Shelly who later changes her name to Destiny. She’s an almost embarrassing parody of how middle America saw flower children in the late 1960s – except that she appears in 1963, before there were a lot of real hippies about in the land. To make matters worse, she brags that she was part of the beat scene in San Francisco and slept with both Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg – which is fairly unlikely, even in fiction; I don’t know who Allen Ginsberg, a proudly gay poet, was fucking in 1963, but I don’t think there were many hippie chicks on the list.

The horror of the dirty girl is almost too much to believe! Destiny is living in a bus with the son of a respectable family who dropped out of college to join her – and she has a child by another man who’s left the picture! And she’s raising her child (gasp) a vegan! And he runs around naked! And she’s preggers again, this time with his kid, and she insists on natural childbirth! She is, of course, also a total beyotch, who doesn’t respect the mother of the once-nice-young-boy loser who is under her hippie-chick spell.

There’s other stuff I didn’t love in here – one young character, who hates his stepmom, gets in trouble at his fancy private school and is forced to transfer to the horrors of a public school, where he of course meets awful bad kids who corrupt him entirely and turn him into a druggie.

In and around all this, though, is a fascinating mystery. It involves two kidnappings from the '60s, a guy who might or might not have fabricated repressed memories, a dead dog in a dead girls’ grave, and a tangled tale across three decades that weaves the lives of the good and the bad (and it’s deliciously hard to tell which is which) into a first-rate detective story.

We also along the way learn some new clues about Milhone’s past (great trivia about Aunt Gin for serious fans of the series) and get a couple of excellent Grafton comments about the important things in life:

“At the time, I’d introduced [cancer patient] Stacey to junk food, which he’d never eaten in his life. Thereafter, I tagged along with him as he went from McDonald’s to Wendy’s to Arby’s to Jack in the Box. My crowning achievement was introducing him to the In-N-Out Burger. His appetite increased, he regained some of the weight he’d lost during the cancer treatments, and his enthusiasm for life returned. Doctors were still scratching their heads.”

Hippie-chick sex. Hippie chick seduction of a high school kid. Sweet Kinsey-shoots-murderer scene. (“It’s only in the movies the bad guys keep firing. In real life, they sit down and behave.”) I almost gagged on the '60s stuff, but I stayed up way past my bedtime to get to the end.