In the first few pages of Let's No One Get Hurt, the second novel from poet Jon Pineda, a man asks his 15-year-old daughter to shoot and kill her beloved dog (who's named Marianne Moore, after the modernist master from the 20th century. Pearl, the teenager, can't bring herself to do it — she sees the ailing mutt, perhaps as a link to her past, when she lived with both her parents, before one of them disappeared.
"My father won't talk about who we used to be because that would mean talking about her, my mother, and what she did to the both of us," Pearl observes. So she's left on her own, with a distant father and an elderly dog. The change in her family has taken its toll on her: "For the last few years I've had no choice but to become someone else."
The adventures of Pearl, both sweet and suspicious, careful and reckless, are at the heart of Let's No One Get Hurt, Pineda's lyrical and powerful novel. It's a well written book that manages to be both honest and poetic at the same time.
The novel opens with Pearl and her father living in an old boathouse on a river, somewhere in the Southern United States. They're not strictly supposed to be there, so they try to lie low with their housemates, Fritter, an army veteran and artist, and his father, Dox, who's fond of playing Son Volt's alt-country anthem "Drown" on his cigar-box guitar.
The four eke out a spartan existence, foraging and fishing for food. It doesn't do much to abate their near-constant hunger. Still, Pearl doesn't have many complaints; she's fond of her makeshift family. She only wishes that her dog weren't sick, that there were more to eat, and that her body would finally mature: "In a few months, I'll be sixteen, but my body doesn't know it. It's like it stopped in place. I'm still that child my mother last saw."
Her life is turned upside-down when she meets Mason, whom she calls "Main Boy," while wandering in the woods. Main Boy is the preppy son of a rich family from a nearby neighborhood, and she starts to spend time with him and his affluent friends, even though she's singularly unimpressed by them: "Yet even as they boast to belonging to important families, I just think of them as flies. They're all flies."
Even as Pearl grows tired of playing "Wendy in this Lost Boys act of theirs," she finds herself unable to turn away from Main Boy, who holds some kind of peculiar sway over her. And although their relationship is never exactly clear, whatever it is turns sour after Main Boy's friends brutalize Pearl in an encounter that's difficult to read.
It's a terrifying denouement, and though Pineda doesn't sensationalize it, exactly, one has to wonder if it's necessary — too many books lean on the trope of a strong female character becoming a victim, and this novel wouldn't have suffered if that moment had been excluded. (The scene gives a male character the chance to play the hero; this, too, is more than a little played-out.) For the most part, though, Pineda shows remarkable restraint, both with regard to the subject matter and the writing itself. He writes like a poet, with a disinclination to waste any words.
He also proves to be a canny observer of the American South and those who call it home. The relationships between Dox and Fritter, and between Pearl and her father, are touching, but never maudlin; Pineda has a sharp eye for the bonds we forge with family members, both biological and otherwise. (At one point, Pearl notes, "My father says I'm fifteen going on fifty," which rings true as a dad joke, and isn't far off the mark for the precocious teenager.)
Pineda's biggest accomplishment is the character of Pearl. Too often, male writers treat young women characters as either delicate household flowers or bad-ass tomboys, and nothing in between. But his portrait of Pearl is complex, and her adolescent longing and confusion ring, for the most part, true — she's tough because she has to be, and tender because she's still, in many ways, just a child: "I'm a poem no one will ever translate," she says.
Of course, it's hard to translate a poem written in a language that hasn't been invented yet, and Pearl is one of a kind. Let's No One Get Hurt is an excellent coming-of-age novel that explores how we deal, or don't deal, with loss and abandonment, and how we can create new versions of ourselves when we're forced to. As Son Volt's Jay Farrar sings in "Drown" — the song Dox loves so much — "When in doubt, move on; no need to sort it out." In Pineda's novel, we learn that advice is both easier and much, much harder to follow than it seems.