In Julia Claiborne Johnson’s 2016 debut novel, Be Frank with Me, a young editorial assistant bears witness to the startlingly singular world of a storied novelist and her son. With Better Luck Next Time, Johnson relies on a similar formula, only here our narrator is blessed with the expansive perspective that comes with experience and age.
Dr. Howard Stovall Bennett III, a self-described “old coot” and resident of a senior home, receives a visitor who wants to know about a particular chapter in the doctor’s early life. What follows might be characterized as an “everything I know about life I learned from working on a dude ranch” yarn. If that sounds reductive, Johnson’s novel makes a compelling case that even a fleeting interval can leave an indelible imprint.
The Great Depression hits Dr. Bennett’s family hard, forcing him to drop out of Yale and head west to find work. Eventually, the Tennessee native lands at a Reno, Nevada, dude ranch catering to the divorce trade.
A meticulous researcher, Johnson conjures the spread known as the Flying Leap, modeled after Reno’s divorce ranches of the 1930s. With the help of a “Hollywood set designer,” the Leap’s owners have mocked up an old Victorian with boulders, sagebrush, and “a cow’s skeleton picked bare by buzzards…for ‘authentic desert texture.’ ”
Clients are greeted by stagecoach for dramatic conveyance to the ranch.
Themed luncheons, shopping excursions, and a masquerade ball make the divorce seekers’ required six-week residency in Reno pass agreeably. As an added perk, the ladies are treated to passing views of the hired hands performing their chores shirtless, “if weather permitting.”
Dr. Bennett—who as a ranch hand goes by Ward—describes his other duties: offering “a sympathetic ear” and telling the clients “they looked good when they needed to hear it most.”
These clients include a “pneumatic, good-natured woman” nicknamed the Zeppelin, “the sort of dowager Margaret Dumont would have played in a Marx Brothers movie.” There are also two other leading ladies—a 1938-vintage Thelma and Louise. The Louise is daredevil Nina, three-time visitor to the ranch, who pilots airplanes, plots upheaval of the social norms, and has so much charisma that the Zeppelin suggests she must have styled herself after a movie star.
“You must have wanted to be Clara Bow, Nina.”
“Are you kidding? I wanted to be Gary Cooper,” Nina retorts.
Nina’s foil is Emily, a maternal Thelma with “an untamable mass of dark ringlets, the bedspring kind that begged to be pulled straight and released back into coiled spirals” and “huge, wide-set brown eyes and a Kewpie doll’s little curved mouth.” As another divorcée-in-waiting observes, “The Emilys of this earth are always married.”
Maybe, but like Dr. Bennett, with his adopted cowboy persona, Ward, Emily and the novel’s other characters are more nuanced than first impressions might suggest.
If I have any quibble, it’s that Better Luck Next Time focuses more on Ward’s coming to maturity than it does on the very real stakes for divorcing women in the 1930s—many of whom faced penury and spinsterdom. Still, the novel succeeds because of Johnson’s knack for well-placed zingers and her eye for scene and detail.
Here she is on Pyramid Lake, the geographic sink of the Truckee River basin, 40 miles north of Reno, or an hour’s drive from the fictional ranch: “The lake stretched immense and placid, a bathtub for the gods, its azure surface stamped here and there with silvery scales where the wind and insects tipped it.”
Then there’s the moment Ward realizes that the “shifting lumps” in Nina’s heavy duffel—which she characterizes as “the canned remains of every man who’s ever underestimated me”—are actually books. “In the 1930s, calling novels the canned remains of men really wasn’t far off base as metaphors went,” Dr. Bennett confides in a trenchant aside.
Like Be Frank with Me, Better Luck Next Time is infused with themes of reinvention, the promise of glittering reversals of fortune, and cinematic locales. I have to wonder whether a bit of Hollywood movie magic hasn’t wafted into the author’s residence near the old Paramount Pictures studio and found its way onto her pages.
Surely there’s a Hollywood producer scribbling ideas at this very moment. Me, I’m just hoping that Johnson is plotting her next book.