80 Proof Lives
by Felicia S. W. Thomas
Review by Donna Meredith
80 Proof Lives, by Felicia S. W. Thomas, is set in the small town of Quincy, Florida, where there’s nothing for a teenage girl to do but “fight, drink, have babies, or some combination of the three.” Fortunately, the author leaves us with hope that her protagonist, Fla (pronounced Flay), may build her life on a more solid foundation. While this debut novel is classified as young adult fiction, the story is strong enough to appeal to an adult audience as well.
Fla’s momma is an alcoholic who loves her addiction much more than she loves her daughter. The novel focuses on Fla’s attempts to find answers to questions about her origin. Why doesn’t her Momma have any tender feelings for her? Who is her father and why hasn’t he ever claimed her? Who is this Karla people say she looks like? Why does Miss Lipstick, the local bootlegger and madam, take such an interest in her?
The search for answers takes Fla into a dark world populated by addicts. Strangely enough, it is here fifteen-year-old Fla finds love and support from a cast of deeply flawed, but richly human characters. She meets “old men with faces that depicted an epic in every crease, young men whose lineless faces hadn’t started chapter one, and women whose faces told a fairy tale, but whose eyes told the true story.”
Thomas creates an authentic voice for the young narrator with pitch-perfect dialogue. Thoughts filtered through Fla’s worldview reveal an exceptionally intelligent and observant young woman. Fla describes a teacher she has a crush on as having “dimples so deep, it seemed his cheeks were trying to meet on the inside of his mouth.” This teacher believes Fla has the potential to “go somewhere beyond Quincy’s city limits.”
A pastor who has been forced to leave the pulpit because of a sexual scandal wears a “lime green, polyester three-piece suit with the long jacket. Sweat poured off his head, a combination of the sun’s effects and the chemical juice from his S-curl.” Fla could have responded to the Pastor’s attire with the disdain of youth. Instead she sees beyond the clothes to the kindness of the man.
Fla shows a similar ability to note important and potentially fatal details of her employer, Miss Lipstick, who has “the laugh of a lifelong smoker, full of the spasms and coughs of three packs a day.” A sense of humor is present in Fla’s descriptions of Miss Lipstick: “She was about fifty years old, if you believed Miss Lipstick; seventy, if you believed the lines in her face. The dusty, black wig resting on her head looked like something birds had made a home in.” Yet Fla never laughs at these colorful characters. She accepts them as they are with the same warm regard they offer her.
Fla also faces conflict at school, where Cast Iron Kat and her gang bully her. Fla learns to run fast to escape beatings. Eventually when the two girls meet alone, they discover similarities. While Fla envies Cast Iron Kat for her beauty, Kat is jealous of Fla’s brains. They both also cope with difficult home situations. For the first time, Fla knows what it is means to have a friend—and learns how to be a friend.
Like all teens and children, Fla is often powerless, at the mercy of adults. Too many young women find themselves in Fla’s situation, where their mothers’ boyfriends take an inappropriate interest in them. Jerome is the grossly overweight loser who lives with Fla’s momma in an on-again, off-again relationship. He becomes obsessed with the desire to take Fla’s virginity.
Though on several occasions Fla gives in to drowning her sorrows in alcohol, like her mother and Miss Lipstick’s clients, Fla later pours booze down the drain to remove temptation. This is a young woman strong enough to break out of the cycle of poverty and addiction that have trapped so many others.
80 Proof Lives offers readers a fully rendered world far removed from the middle-class suburbs, a world peopled by characters both wretchedly weak and inspiringly strong. These folks have their own philosophies and their own moral codes. One of Thomas’s achievements as a writer is how little she passes judgment. (With the exception of the would-be rapist Jerome, and it would be hard for anyone to like him.) Even Fla’s mother has a story that makes her actions more understandable, if not forgivable.
Felicia S. W. Thomas has a B.S. in journalism and a law degree. We are certain to hear more from this author from Quincy, Florida.