I knew nothing about Merritt Tierce’s debut novel Love Me Back when I picked it off the shelf at the library a few weeks back. I’d only heard of Tierce because I’d read her widely circulated essay on money and writing back in September, in which she wrote about the financial reality that followed publishing a first novel to ‘wide acclaim’,
For over a year after Love Me Back came out I woke up every day with this loop in my head: I should write. But I need money. If I write something I can sell it and I’ll have money. But I need money now. If I had money now, I could calm down and write something. I don’t have money now, so I’m probably not going to be able to calm down and write something. To have money now, I need a job. I should get a job.Merritt Tierce
I remember reading that piece and feeling sympathy, but also thinking, maybe your book just isn’t as good as you think it is. I was so very wrong. I started reading Love Me Back on a Friday evening just before putting the kids to bed & I finished it late the next day, after the Bonfire Night fireworks, turning the pages faster & faster as midnight approached.
This might already be clear to you but, these days (these years!), it’s almost unheard of for me to finish a novel in two days.
From the very start, Love Me Back is something special. A voice, perfectly nailed, from the opening lines:
I met all four of them at an off-site catering event for the opening of their new Minimally Invasive Spine, Neck and Back Group. The one I liked, Cornelius, was the only one I didn’t sleep with, and the only one who asked me out.
Marie, is a young mother working in a succession of Texas restaurants. She specialises in excelling during her shifts and afterwards losing herself in whatever way that she can — through sex, drugs, and self-harm.
It wasn’t about pleasure, it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.
If I had known more about the novel, I might not have thought it was for me. It’s a graphically sexual book. There are many scenes in which, although Marie has agency, there is always the very real fear of her losing any control of the situation. But somehow, in the litany of Marie’s jobs, her sleazy bosses and customers, her colleagues and their stories, the book enters that small genre of books that describe a job and its world so well that you feel you’ve lived it. In Merritt’s hands, the meticulous ballet of fine-dining service becomes the most riveting and vital performance. And Marie can lose herself within it like nothing else.
This is the thing about the service industry, you can get trained to be slick and hospitable in any situation and it serves you well the rest of your life. Once you figure out that everything is performance and you bow to that, learn to modulate, you can dissociate from the mothership of yourself like an astronaut floating in space.
But Love Me Back is also a motherhood book of a kind I’ve never read before. Getting pregnant by another member of her church youth group at seventeen, Marie is shamed by the church elders and derailed from her own life. Instead of entering Yale, she starts waitressing, working right up until her daughter is born. And then, that other dance, of fierce love and ambivalence begins. Each scene with her daughter is hauntingly unfamiliar yet achingly familiar,
You are strong. My father calls you Little Boot because when you fall you never cry. You can read when you are four and I ask you to help me memorize the parts of the cow. You have a lisp and I tell you to say brisket over and over just so I can hear it. But when you fall asleep I go into the bathroom and do lines off the map of the steer. […] You like staying with me because you get to sleep with me. You are so warm but I can’t stop shivering. I feel a soaring bliss–I adore you–I feel a plummeting ugly resentment–I am a pile of shit falling endlessly down a dark shaft, I am the hate that hurled the shit and the fear inside the hurled shit. If you slip out one stitch in your brain high and low are the same.
(Courtney Maum writes beautifully about Love Me Back as a motherhood book over at Electric Literature.)
More than any other, the book reminded me of Denis Johnson’s short story collection, Jesus’ Son. The same episodic, almost dream-like moving through anecdote and incident and then, bam, the whole thing igniting in revelation. But this book, this book is all female experience. I can think of many reasons why Tierce’s transgressive heroine might not have sold as well as she should, but not a single one of them is to do with the quality of the writing. Her voice, oh her voice! I could have listened to Marie for another two hundred pages, and another, and another. I burned through this book like nothing else I’ve read this year. Consuming and consumed and totally in love.
Please someone, pay Merritt Tierce to write.
Desperate for more, I read this short story by Merritt Tierce — also recommended.