Picks and Pans Review: The One True Story of the World

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Lynne McFall

Jesse Walker, the 34-year-old heroine of this affecting first novel, thinks she's tough. Fed up with the ambivalence of her married lover, a philosopher she calls Aristotle, and with no job grounding her, she takes off.

But she's not running away—no, not this willful woman who sneers at herself ("Sissygirl!") whenever she finds herself crying. She's moving on and proud of it: "I'm not saying it's easy.... There are rules for running away. A motive and a point of departure. Moving on requires an act of pure imagination. It's a card game without cards, sleight of hand in an empty theatre; no way to count your losses, no applause."

The novel follows Jesse from New Hampshire, where she worked as an obituaries writer at a small newspaper, to Route 90, where she totals her car and is rescued by Lucky Redbord, an Iowa pig farmer who offers her shelter, a job and eventually love.

Soon, though, Jesse picks a fight with her saviour so she can leave him and heads to her mother's house in California. Before her father abandoned the family, he used to tell Jesse "the one true story of the world," for which he'd let her choose an ending; now she must figure out the real ending to the story of his desertion.

Like Jayne Anne Phillips's Machine Dreams and Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here, this is a road novel in which a character is in search of herself. What makes McFalls's version work is Jesse, a carefully drawn character of tremendous bravado.

McFall does less well with other characters—Jesse's mother is barely a sketch—and some of what happens to Jesse after she leaves Lucky seems contrived to show her vulnerability. Still, McFall, a Syracuse College philosophy professor, has a wry, thoughtful voice that makes you care about how this version of the one true story finally ends. (Atlantic Monthly, $19.95)

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