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According to author Amy Bryant, her debut novel, Polly, is “not a memoir, thank God.” The sense of relief is understandable: Bryant’s teenage protagonist learns some harsh lessons in the suburban-Virginia coming-of-age tale, usually in the hardest possible ways.
But if the specific path of Polly’s journey through an ’80s adolescence doesn’t reflect Bryant’s own, the two do share scenery. Like Polly, Bryant braved couples skates at the Reston Skateway as well as lunchrooms populated by bops, grits, and landlocked surf punks. Upon entering high school, she discovered hardcore—which Polly does, too, sneaking out to shows at the old 9:30 Club and in church basements to find other kids who are “frustrated and angry and rejected and furtive and raw.”
“I relied on my memories of what [a show] felt like, what it smelled like, how exciting it felt,” Bryant explains. The 36-year-old Reston native remembers seeing different bands every weekend at afternoon shows but condensed those experiences for the sake of setting a simpler scene. “I picked two of my favorite bands, Dag Nasty and Verbal Assault, who I wish I had gotten to see as many times as Polly does in the book,” she says.
At its core, however, Polly deals with a teen issue more universal than rebellious music: relationships. The novel’s chapters are titled with names from a long list of boys Polly meets. Overall, the guys are every bit as pissed-off and confused as she is; occasionally, they’re also abusive. Groping for an identity in their show-flier-papered bedrooms, Polly eventually falls in love with her place as a girlfriend more than with the boys themselves.
Before she began work on the book in 2000, Bryant had been sketching out this theme in a series of short stories. “I wanted to examine teenage girls and the boys in their lives…‘bad boyfriends,’ ” she says. “I realized I was really writing about the same girl, so eventually I gave her a family, gave her some really good friends.” As Polly makes her way through a decade of headiness and heartache, she also struggles to fit an absent, alcoholic father and a well-meaning stepfather into the picture. But Bryant, who considers herself a feminist, notes that women are the ones who ultimately come through for Polly. She develops tight friendships with a few loyal girls and grows to understand—and even like—her mother as she moves toward her late teens.
Bryant has worked in the pro-choice community for the last eight years, most recently as a writer for Planned Parenthood’s teenwire.com, a youth-oriented sex-education-and-health Web site. Her commitment to the cause is reflected in her treatment of Polly’s travails. Being unfortunately stranded in the unwired ’80s, Polly and her girlfriends fumble through their romantic and sexual initiations with little information about how to protect their health, emotional or physical. A kindly Planned Parenthood worker at the clinic Polly visits to obtain birth-control pills asks her whether she is satisfied with her sex life. Polly is startled; the concept of enjoying sex had not previously occurred to her. “I had to keep reminding myself that I have all of this information now,” Bryant says, “but when I was Polly’s age, you didn’t know anything. Even, really, why you were having sex.”
Bryant’s next project follows a group of women in their 20s through interconnected short stories set in New York City, which the author has called home for the past 13 years. Bryant promises that this book will feature “Less angst, more plot.”
“The thing is,” she pauses, “teenagers have it no more or less together than adults do.”
Bryant discusses and signs copies of her work at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Free. (703) 525-4227.