The Heroine of The Roxy Letters Fights to Get Austin's Groove Back
Mary Pauline Lowry's quirky novel looks for the city's soul
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., April 17, 2020
You know the routine by now – it's so common, it might as well be a vaudeville bit: One local says to another, "When did you move to Austin?" The other local replies with some date, and no matter how long ago it was, the first local comes back with, "Well, you shoulda been here in yadda yadda," naming a time before that. "That was when Austin was still cool."
Everybody in this town who loves this town has an opinion – invariably a really strong opinion – about when Austin was the enchanted realm of weirdness and cheapness and cool, and when it started losing its cool – and also its soul. You can count Roxy, the letter-writing heroine of Mary Pauline Lowry's second novel, among those opinionated Austin-adoring locals. She has no shortage of strong opinions about many things – her art; her veganism; her diabetic dachshund Roscoe; her devotion to the goddess Venus; her meth-cooking next-door neighbors; her ex, Brant Bitterbrush – but it's her feelings about Austin and how it's changing that drive her actions in The Roxy Letters.
Roxy's job behind the deli counter in the Whole Foods mothership brings her daily to Sixth and Lamar, an intersection she's long considered "a haven of everything truly and uniquely Austin," owing to its concentration of homegrown indie businesses: BookPeople, Waterloo Records, Waterloo Video, Waterloo Ice House, Amy's Ice Creams, and, despite the fact that it's swollen into "an international behemoth," Whole Foods. Lowry sets the book in 2012 and imagines the shuttered Waterloo Video space being filled with a Lululemon outlet – sacrilege to Roxy, who sees the women's workout-wear chain as the embodiment of everything changing her city for the worse: It is corporate, elitist, expensive, and caters to all those Cali Barbies crowding into the city. She's so outraged by this co-opting of local culture that Roxy decides to lead a campaign against this particular Lululemon store, one that will force it to move. This gesture to preserve one tiny corner of her beloved hometown's offbeat originality becomes Roxy's raison d'être and ends up in what may be literature's most cockeyed protest since Ignatius J. Reilly's Crusade for Moorish Dignity.
Now, Roxy is no Ignatius, but it appears Lowry has taken at least a little inspiration from A Confederacy of Dunces in her cast of eccentrics, who range from meth head Captain Tweakers to the dynamic duo of drug trials, Rooster Boy and Shaved Head Guy, to the strokers and strokees of Nest Life, an organization that promotes orgasmic meditation through two-party clitoral stimulation. These oddballs and their ilk – along with several less quirky characters, such as Roxy's Whole Foods ladder-climbing gal pal Alice – weave in and out of her quixotic quest to keep Austin you-know-what, as well as her equally hapless pursuit of a partner in romance. (No matter how much faith Roxy places in Venus, the goddess keeps sending her down dead ends on Lovers' Lane – e.g., backstabbing Brant Bitterbrush, who appropriated a piece of Roxy's artwork for a product logo after he bailed on her; and hunky skateboarding manchild Patrick, who turns out not to be a one-woman man. Even the letters Roxy fills the book with are all written to an ex, the sad-sack slacker Everett.)
As Roxy goes on tilting at her workout-wear windmill and looking for love in all the wrong places, we come to see that the ills she sees assailing Austin – its surrender to corporate culture; its loss of indie spirit and artistic voice; its lack of personal connection; its fading soul – are the same ones besieging her. Whole Foods may be a homegrown business, but now it's big business, and there Roxy is, just another wage slave in a multinational chain store. She's lost touch with old friends and become a homebody, leaving after her shift to snuggle with her furballs. And as fallout from the Bitterbrush betrayal, Roxy isn't even making art anymore. Our disciple of Venus is a comic mirror of the city she loves: a shadow of her former cool, creative, sexy self. So it follows that reclaiming Austin's mojo should be how Roxy gets her groove back.
It's a pleasure to see just how that happens for both city and woman, largely because Lowry has so much affection for both. An Austin native, she too has strong opinions about the state of her hometown, and she's deeply invested in the restoration of its soul, even on a fictional level. She fills The Roxy Letters with as much heart as fun, and as a result, the reader comes away from this novel feeling that this city that's so special to so many is as cool as it's ever been.
The Roxy Lettersby Mary Pauline Lowry
Simon & Schuster, 313 pp., $26