“I read faster than I breathe,” panted Maggie Estep. The author furiously delivered her signature sassy staccato while reading recently from her sixth novel, Alice Fantastic, at Inquiring Minds independent bookstore in Saugerties, New York. Estep quickly seduced the audience with her sharp tongue, much the way she first seduced me with her spoken word at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the 1990s. As a performance poet Estep was infamous for her feisty feminist anthems like “Sex Goddess of the Western Hemisphere” and “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With,” and she brings that same frantic energy and dark humor to her narrative prose.
In Alice Fantastic, we meet the women of the Hunter family. Alice is a 36-year-old professional gambler working at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York. Her life is happening to her, but in a moment of unexpected clarity she decides to take charge and ditch her fungus of a boyfriend, Clayton, who she refers to as “The Big Oaf.” Alice asks her racetrack buddies to “take care of” of Clayton, but when things don’t go as planned she retreats to hippie enclave Woodstock, New York to be with family. Family, in Estep’s complex configuration, is Alice’s younger half-sister Eloise, a toy designer whose boyfriend has just died in an accident, and her mother Kimberly, a recovering addict and on-again, off-again lesbian caring for seventeen rescue dogs. Alice Fantastic is full of over the top, bizarre and impossible drama, plus lots of torturous sex (Alice and Eloise accidentally bed the same man), trips to the dog park, chain smoking, and bisexuality (Kimberly reverts to heterosexuality; Eloise becomes a lesbian). Underneath Estep’s colorful imagination is an emotionally honest portrayal of family, and the ever-fraught relationship between mother and daughter.