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In 'Heartland,' Writer's Block Can Be Murder

Ana Simo's debut novel Heartland is at once manic, brash and unsettling. It's also nearly impossible to categorize without running the risk of coming up short. It straddles the line between pulp noir and slapstick; it carries the can't-look-away sensibility of a telenovela. Simo, a Cuba-born playwright who co-founded the first lesbian theater in New York, takes readers on an erratic — and sometimes erotic — journey through the mind of a jealous lover. What keeps you engaged throughout is Simo's darkly funny and original voice: At one point, she describes her parents as gurgling "discreetly in their bedroom like oversexed carps in a stagnant pond." And there's plenty more where that came from.

Told mostly through an irreverent inner monologue, Heartland follows an unnamed narrator, a foiled and frustrated writer from a small town called Elmira. After drifting through early, middle, and late youth, she finds herself in New York, publishing in journals, indulging in various forms of excess, and stumbling in and out of love.

Thanks to a generous government stipend, she begins writing a book — sort of. Our narrator doesn't do much work; not for a long time. In fact, she only sits down to write when pressure mounts and she has to either turn in the draft or pay back the money. Time slips, and our thwarted heroine gets hit with a debilitating case of writer's block, eventually abandoning the project 13 years after taking it on. Considering her strange predicament, she wonders, "Was a writer who could not write due to a mysterious brain disturbance still a writer?"

One night, she wakes up soaked in a fit of rage. By now she's fresh out of ideas and desperate for anything that might bestow upon her a renewed sense of purpose and resolve. She opens the Yellow Pages — that old trusty directory — and suddenly a word jumps out at her that she simply cannot shake: Kill. "I knew it wasn't me I was going to kill," she says, "but someone else." She accepts that murder might be her only chance at freeing herself from whatever curse has come upon her life.

And soon enough, she has a target: Mercy McCabe, a wealthy art dealer and former rival for the hand of our narrator's beloved Bebe.

'Heartland' is an imperfect, yet pleasing cocktail that goes down unexpectedly smooth.

What follows is a disconcerting and often hilarious expedition, complete with blizzards, great illness, and peculiar disappearances. Simo boldly tackles issues of race, sexuality, and immigration. It's an engrossing tale, to be sure — one with traces of surreal horror. Simo's gift lies not only in keeping the reader invested in her narrator's detailed observances and wild tangents, but in her own total fearlessness as a writer.

Some will find it easy to dislike our protagonist, especially her reckless use of slurs and general negligence. It's clear that Simo didn't necessarily set out to create a likable character, but a complicated one whose brashness reminds us how our past can ultimately shape who we are and how we relate to the world around us. Heartland is an imperfect, yet pleasing cocktail that goes down unexpectedly smooth; it is truly unlike any novel I can think of, or imagine.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juan Vidal