Jane Smiley's New Novel, Lucky, Draws on Her Charmed St. Louis Childhood

Both the life she lived — and one she didn't — play a role in the narrative

May 22, 2024 at 6:00 am
The protagonist of Jane Smiley's new novel, Lucky, grows up on Skinker near Big Bend Boulevard.
The protagonist of Jane Smiley's new novel, Lucky, grows up on Skinker near Big Bend Boulevard. ZACHARY LINHARES

Like any good St. Louisan, Jane Smiley has an opinion on the high school question.

"If you ask somebody in St. Louis, 'Where did you go to high school' — because each school is so unique, you do get a sense of what their life was like and where they live," says the John Burroughs graduate. "Where are you from? What do you like? And, you know, the answer is always interesting."

That's pretty much what Jodie Rattler, the main character of Smiley's latest novel, Lucky, thinks.

"School, in St. Louis, is a big question, especially high school," Rattler muses toward the start of the story. "... My theory about this is not that the person who asks wants to judge you for your socioeconomic position, rather that he or she wants to imagine your neighborhood, since there are so many, and they are all different."

This parallel thought pattern is even less of a coincidence than the author/subject relationship implies. Lucky, which Alfred A. Knopf published last month, is nominally the story of Jodie, a folk musician gone fairly big who hails from our fair town. But the book is more than just its plot: It's an ode to St. Louis and an exploration of the life Jane Smiley might have lived — if only a few things were different.

The trail to Lucky started in 2019, when Smiley returned here for her 50th high school reunion and agreed to a local interview. The radio host asked why she'd never set a novel in St. Louis.

"I thought, 'Boy, why haven't I done that?'" Smiley remembers. "And so then I thought, 'Well, maybe I should think about it.' And I decided since I love music, and St. Louis is a great music town, that I would maybe do an alternative biography of myself if I had been a musician, and of course I would say where she went to [high] school. So that's what got me started. And the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it."

click to enlarge Jane Smiley rocketed to literary stardom after winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for A Thousand Acres. She now has more than 25 books to her name. - DEREK SHAPTON
Jane Smiley rocketed to literary stardom after winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for A Thousand Acres. She now has more than 25 books to her name.

The Life Jane Smiley Didn't Live

Jane Smiley has always felt really lucky.

First, there was her background: She grew up with a "very easygoing and fun family." Growing up in Webster Groves, she enjoyed wandering through the adjacent neighborhoods and exploring how spaces that were so close together could have such different vibes.

Then there was her career, which kicked into gear when she was 42 with the publication of A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear set on a farm in Iowa. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1991 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992. It became a movie and, two years ago, an opera. Since then, she's been steadily publishing and now has more than 25 books to her name.

"I was lucky in the way that my career got started," Smiley says. "It was lucky in a way that it continued. I was lucky to win the Pulitzer. And I really enjoyed that. I said, 'OK, I want to write about someone who's lucky, but I don't want it to be me. Because I want to contemplate the idea of luck, and see how maybe it works for somebody else.'"

Both the book, and Jodie's good luck, start at Cahokia Downs in 1955. Jodie's Uncle Drew, a father stand-in, takes her to the racetrack and has her select the numbers on a bet that turns his last $6 into $5,986. She gets $86 of the winnings in a roll of $2 bills.

Smiley, a horse lover throughout her life, used to love looking at the horses at the racetrack before she understood how "corrupt it is at work." (She also reminisces about pony rides at the corner of Brentwood and Manchester across from St. Mary Magdalen Church and riding her horse at Otis Brown Stables.)

Unlike Smiley, Jodie is not a horse person. And at first, Jodie feels somewhat disconnected from her luck — it's something other people tell her that she possesses. She's lucky to live where she does. She's lucky that her mom doesn't make her clear her plate, that her uncle has a big house, that she gets into John Burroughs. Later, she begins to carry those bills around as a talisman.

"[I] made a vow never to spend that roll of two-dollar bills — that was where the luck lived," Jodie thinks after a narrow miss with a tornado.

It's John Burroughs that changes Jodie's life, just as it did Smiley's. But instead of falling in love with books in high school and becoming a writer, Jodie falls into music. She eventually gets into songwriting, penning tunes as a sophomore at Penn State that launch her career.

One of Jodie's songs should instantly resonate for St. Louis readers.

"The third one was about an accident I heard had happened in St. Louis," Jodie recalls in the book, "a car going off the bridge over the River des Peres, which may have once been a river but was now a sewer. My challenge was to make sense of the story while sticking in a bunch of odd St. Louis street names — Skinker, of course, DeBaliviere, Bompart, Chouteau, Vandeventer. The chorus was about Big Bend. The song made me cry, but I never sang it to anyone but myself."

Throughout the book are Jodie's lyrics, alongside the events that inspire them. Writing them was a new experience for Smiley, who found herself picking up a banjo gifted by an ex and strumming the few songs she'd managed to learn, as well as revisiting the popular music of the novel's time — the Beatles (George is Smiley's favorite), Janis Joplin and the Traveling Wilburys, along with Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Peter, Paul and Mary — basically "all the folk singers."

"I really love music, and I do wish I'd managed to practice, which I was always a failure at," Smiley says. "... I liked that they made up their own lyrics, and they made their own music, and I was impressed by that."

Both Smiley and Jodie grew up in households replete with record players and music. It's one of their great commonalities.

A great difference between the two? That would be sex. At one point, Jodie compares her body count, which she calls the "Jodie Club," with a lover — 25 (rounded up, Jodie notes) to his 150.

"That was a lot of fun," says Smiley. "She learns a lot from having those affairs, and she enjoys it. She's careful. And I like the fact that she never gets married, and she doesn't really have any regrets about that." (Smiley has been married four times.) "In some sense, her musical career has made her want to explore those kinds of issues of love and connection and sex and the way guys are."

You can tell Smiley had a good time writing this. After Jodie loses her virginity, she thinks, "The erection had turned into a rather cute thing that flopped to one side."

"Oh, it was fun," Smiley confirms. "Sometimes I would say, 'OK, what can I have Jodie do next? What's something completely different than what I did when I was her age?' And then I'd have to think about that and try and come up with something that was actually interesting. I knew that she couldn't do all the things that I had done, and she had to be kind of a different person than I was. And so I made her a little more independent, and a little more determined."

click to enlarge Jane Smiley's high school yearbook photo. In Lucky, Jodie recalls of a classmate, "The gawky girl had stuck her head into a basketball basket, taken hold of the rim, and her caption was, 'They always have the tall girls guard the basket.'" - VIA THE SCHOOL YEARBOOK
Jane Smiley's high school yearbook photo. In Lucky, Jodie recalls of a classmate, "The gawky girl had stuck her head into a basketball basket, taken hold of the rim, and her caption was, 'They always have the tall girls guard the basket.'"

Lucky follows Jodie from childhood to into her late 60s. At several points in the novel, she crosses paths with a Burroughs classmate, identified only as the "gawky girl." Jodie takes note of her former classmate, but she's not recognized.

Toward the end, Jodie walks into Left Bank Books and sees the gawky girl's name on the cover of a novel.

"Out of curiosity, I read a few things about the gawky girl. Apparently she really had been to Greenland, and the Pulitzer novel was based on King Lear, which I thought was weird, but I did remember that when we read King Lear in senior English, I hadn't liked it," Jodie thinks. "... I remembered walking past her in the front hall of the school, maybe a ways down from the front door. She was standing there smiling, her glasses sliding down her nose, and one of the guys in our class, one of the outgoing ones, not one of the math nerds that abounded, stopped and looked at her, and said, 'You know, I would date you if you weren't so tall.'"

Sound familiar? Does it help to know Smiley is 6'2"?

The doppelgangers meet face to face after their 50th Burroughs' reunion at the Fox and Hounds bar at the Cheshire. To go into what happens next — it's too much of a spoiler.

"In every book, there's always a surprise," Smiley says.

click to enlarge Smiley enjoys St. Louis place names, and DeBaliviere is one of many in the novel. - ZACHARY LINHARES
Smiley enjoys St. Louis place names, and DeBaliviere is one of many in the novel.

Jodie Rattler's St. Louis

Lucky is a smorgasbord of familiar names and places for St. Louis readers, and picking them out will be a big part of the joy of the book for locals.

"I love many things about St. Louis — not exactly the humidity, but lots of other things," Smiley says. "One of the things I love is how weird the street names are. So I had to put her in that house on Skinker, and I had to refer to a few other places that are kind of weird. I couldn't fit them all in.

"But I love the way that those street names and St. Louis are a real mix, and some of them are true French street names. Some of them are true English street names. Like Grav-wah or Grav-whoy" — here she deploys first the French and then the St. Louis version of "Gravois" — "whatever you want to call it, and Clark. It's just really interesting to look around there and sense all of the different cultures that lived there and went through there."

Jodie grows up in a house on Skinker near Big Bend. It's "a pale golden color, with the tile roof and the little balcony," Smiley writes. Jodie walks through Forest Park and eats at Schneithorst's. Her mother works at the Muny; she shops at Famous Barr. Her grandfather prefers the "golf course near our house on Skinker," which must be the Forest Park course. Jodie goes to Cardinals games, the Saint Louis Zoo and Grant's Farm. She visits and thinks about St. Louis' parks such as Tilles and Babler. Even the county jail in Clayton gets a mention.

Of course, Chuck Berry shows up several times, first mentioned for getting "in trouble for doing something that I wouldn't understand." Later, as Jodie drives by his home, she drops some shade on the county along the way: "Aunt Louise knew where Phyllis Schlafly's house was, so I drove past there — another reason not to choose Ladue," she writes.

Jodie and the man who invented rock & roll later meet face-to-face briefly at a festival near San Jose, California. "My favorite parts were getting to walk up to Chuck Berry and say, 'I'm from St. Louis, too. Skinker!' and having him reply, 'Cards, baby!' and know that no one nearby knew what in the world we were talking about," Jodie recalls.

Lucky feels like a bit of a members-only club, and here the club is St. Louis. There is barely a page that is without some kind of reference — to the point where one might wonder if non-locals can even keep up. (Though they should rest assured: It's a good read.)

"I write more or less to do what I want to do, and so I wrote about the things that interested me," Smiley says. And more than 50 years after she graduated high school and left Webster Groves for Iowa and (briefly) Iceland and California, where she lives today, St. Louis, clearly, qualifies. 

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