Larry Loebell is a Sunbury author who I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with at some book events where we talked writing and life. He’s an accomplished writer in a variety of areas including drama, television writing, and short fiction. He was also a professor and taught such subjects as film history, dramaturgy, screen writing, theater history, and play writing. He also led creative writing workshops. Tough Girl in the Jam is his first novel. He also happens to have one of the coolest bio bullet points of any writer I’ve met personally –he won an Emmy writing on the first season of Rugrats!
Tough Girl in the Jam follows the partnership of Nina and Rachel, two women nearing the year mark in their romantic relationship. Nina is a physical therapist by trade, and a roller derby player by passion. Rachel is a professional masseuse and Nina’s biggest fan. They live together, although it’s in Nina’s apartment that she still largely operates as her own space. This is a perfect representation of their relationship with Nina as an overpowering force and Rachel as the quieter, more submissive partner.
Nina plays for the Freedom, a semi-professional roller derby team from Philadelphia. Her strong, aggressive attitude translates well to the rough-and-tumble sport, and she is one of the top players on the squad. The Freedom are training for their upcoming championship bout, with intense practice sessions filling the players schedules and leaving them mentally and physically exhausted.
Nina is coming to terms with the fact that, although only in her early thirties, she may soon see a decline in her performance from aging and the abuse her body has taken from the sport. She also becomes aware of a major health issue her father is experiencing, one that may require her to donate her own kidney to save his life. As a consequence, she would also have to give up roller derby or be risking her life every time she gets on the track.
Despite being divorced, her parents still have a relationship with each other, albeit screwed up and unhealthy. Her mother wants her to give up her kidney for him, but her father is vehemently against it. He insists that he will not change his unhealthy habits that caused his health troubles to begin with. That, and the effects it will have on Nina’s life, leaves her in a tough jam (“jam” is also a significant roller derby term and the crux of the book title’s wordplay).
Most of Rachel’s story is told through sessions with her therapist, who she is seeing because of her overall anxiety and her concerns about the health of her relationship with Nina. She often feels overwhelmed by Nina’s tough, stubborn attitude and resistance to having deep discussions about the future of their partnership. This method of telling her story is excellent because the reader gets to hear her inner thoughts and learn much about her without feeling like it’s unnaturally stuck into the text. It also keeps her part of the plot concise but powerful.
The novel is set amidst the world of roller derby, which is a really interesting subculture to learn about. That being said, the novel is really a much deeper story about having to make tough decisions that leave you essentially choosing who gets priority between the people you love. It also takes a look at how people decide between self-preservation and sacrificing a part of their own life to help another. The reader also learns some of the intricacies of what lesbian women go through in their path to realizing and eventually claiming their sexuality. Nina and Rachel deal with parents who, while not exactly shunning their daughters, are obviously uncomfortable with the reality of their being gay. Interestingly, that means they still have relationships, of sorts, with them, but they’re fraught with stress, passive-aggression, and unpleasantness.
Loebell tells a very well-crafted story that begins with two women who have somewhat similar jobs, are close in age, and hang out in the same circles of people. Loebell expertly shows that while these women are analogous on the surface, how they experience life and what they want from it differ to the point of major contention between them. Showing that arc is the job of a writer of literary fiction, and Loebell succeeds at it in this novel.