I should confess that I was steeling myself from the moment I glimpsed the cover of Slab for the inevitability that I would not like this book. Its slick cover and short anecdote-length scenes—the whole play premise, in fact—seemed gimmicky, too gimmicky, and I am a Very Serious Literary Reader. Except, by the time I was fifty pages into the book, Tiger’s narrative voice had thoroughly won me over with passages like this one, from “Tiger Has A Devil Of A Time,” Scene Three:
It distressed me that Ricky thought I was not like other girls. I only wanted to be like other girls. I did not want to be how I was: a stripper who worked in what could only be called a “sub-genre” way. Then I saw myself outside myself: a woman sitting in a hot parking lot, picnicking on a crocheted blanket, dressed like Maria from The Sound of Music. I couldn’t finish my lunch. I did not want to be how I was.Tiger lives with her family inside of a playset on a slab after surviving a hurricane with her family. She survives by stripping, by telling her life story to Barbara Walters, and by referring often to her Book of Profound Women, the contents of which has inspired her to build her performances as a stripper around women like Helen Keller.
Slab asserts that choosing a name is akin to choosing one’s destiny, and it is no accident that Tiger has chosen her name, while her counterpoint, the preacher, became what he is because his mother gave him the first name Preacher. Is he actually a preacher? This is unclear, except that it isn’t: because in the book, he preaches. Is Tiger really a tiger? No—yes. In any case, Tiger is haunted by loss, and she is violently angry in the face of the multiple predicaments that her life is composed of. Her anger feels true, and warranted.
The book’s chapters (or, in terms of the conceit, the play’s scenes) each have their own thematic coherence—there is a meditation on (flood) water, detailed instructions for how to steal a car, a convincing case made for the lascivious nature of Red Velvet cake, and thoughtful consideration of the Southern viewpoint that marks guns a necessity, filtered through Tiger’s reaction to the death of a family member. The book is structured as a mosaic more than anything else, but with a cast of repeating characters and a consistent setting. If chain novels rely on strands to connect one chapter to the next—Annie Proulx’s The Green Accordion comes to mind here—in Slab, the effect is more episodic, as if the book is a sitcom whose laugh track chases hardship and tragedy instead of jokes.
And yet the book has a lot of heart, too. In spite of its slick packaging and conceits, the writing constantly swerves from the sensational to the sincere, which gives it resonance and, ultimately, makes the book so darn likeable. Written with the knowledge that “all [we] ever really want to hear is that [we] are not bad and can be loved. It is what everyone wants to know; it’s the oldest picture show and it never stops playing, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” Slab is a definite must-read.