After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: A Review of ‘Too Early to Know Who’s Winning’ by Karla Huebner

Karla Huebner’s latest book seems as if it’s the story of a friendship between two women during the harrowing Trump years. Superficially, it is, but it soon becomes clear that it’s a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about the anxieties of middle age. Because the Trump years were so difficult for many of us, especially women, the framing of the novel prevents it from being too self-indulgent—and since the demonic fellow is still bedeviling us with his presence, it doesn’t seem “dated.”

Huebner’s wonderfully named main character, Jacobine Flaa, is a professor of immigration studies at an unnamed university in Ohio. Nearing sixty, she lives by herself in a small house and has enough money and time to pursue leisure activities. Her life is spare, though, and she relies on an equally unhappy and emotionally unavailable friend, Cinda, for any kind of regular companionship. Both women have links to the West Coast, but have been priced out. Cinda is eccentric and unreliable, but makes for a good foil against the sometimes flat affect of Jacobine.

Are the women even fond of each other at all? I found no sense of the arc of their friendship, whether they liked each other much more at the beginning, so I presume that this isn’t the point. As Jacobine thinks about dropping her after continued let-downs, another character ends up supplying the key to Cinda’s character with empathy and insight: “It must be so hard to go through life like that, constantly repressing your pain when you fail at something. Covering it all with endless trivial chit-chat.”

There was a poignancy and strangeness about the book for me, I confess, as I have known Huebner for decades. She was in a longtime Bay Area writing group that I was a member of. I was “cast out” of the group about twenty years ago due to a personal conflict with another member. Huebner, by then phoning in from the East Coast, was the only person who lobbied for me to stay.

Imagine my feelings, then, when the early part of the book covers the death of a mutual friend who co-founded the writing group, someone I deeply cared about. Names have been changed; all is thinly veiled. But, given this, it is hard for me to see any of this book as fiction, exactly, even more so as it bumbles to a close with absolutely no resolution, although a sixtieth birthday and an evening with an ex that ends in bed breaks a long stretch of celibacy for Jacobine. Trump is still president; Jacobine’s life is still hard.

Even though Jacobine is politically engaged, her lack of self-awareness about herself and her friendships pervades the book, because her friendships are awfully transactional and her constant default reaction is judgment. However, the need to keep reaching out is there too. We do need others around us as we age, however weak the connections are. I found myself musing that if I had gotten together with Huebner on one of her visits to the Bay Area, I might have found myself in the book! It was a slightly unsettling feeling, to say the least.

However humdrum the book may seem at times, it’s not boring. Huebner is incapable of writing a bad book, but this one has the feel of a suppressed cri de coeur. The jury is out on Jacobine’s health as the book ends, on her relationship with Cinda as well. Did Cinda even exist? I would prefer to think she is a fictional character, actually. More likely she is a composite of several people. The times when Jacobine takes to her bed, riddled with stress at current events or grief at the loss of a friend, are the moments when she is most likeable. (Her body, at least, seems to know that something is amiss in her life.) The book does not even touch on the pandemic. It ends before that. We can rest assured that Jacobine will continue to put one foot in front of the other.

At any rate, ironically, there is a huge audience for this book. Contrast this to Huebner’s previous novel, In Search of the Magic Theater (2022), if you want to get a sense of her range.

About Gabriella West

Author of LGBT historical fiction and contemporary queer romance. Copyeditor/proofreader.
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