Wednesday, September 30, 2020

M. O. Walsh: The Big Door Prize

 I had already read M. O. Walsh's earlier novel My Sunshine Away before he appeared on the virtual reveal party for the Southern Festival of Books. When he talked about his new novel The Big Door Prize, he had me at John Prine. For the unfamiliar, the title of the book is a line from "In Spite of Ourselves," Prine's duet with Iris DeMent. Several of the chapter titles are song titles, and I caught so many other references. (There's a casual mention that a local couple, Donald and Lydia, are divorcing.)

Yes, you can enjoy the novel without knowing anything about the late great singer-songwriter (although I'd recommend remediation if that's the case.) The novel follows Douglas Hubbard, a high school teacher, whose "midlife crisis" reaction to turning forty is to sign up for trombone lessons.

His wife Cherilyn is keeping busy painting birdhouses to sell at the centennial celebration of their small town, Deerfield, Louisiana. But the appearance of a DNAMIX machine at the local grocery shakes up everyone, including this generally happy couple. This machine, which appeared without explanation, for the price of $2 and a cheek swab will reveal anyone's destiny. The problem is that the read-outs not only defy logic, but also send many of the locals on a widely divergent path.

When Cherilyn grows weepy, attributed to her destiny card, Douglas resists the urge at first to see for himself what his DNAMIX reading might be. What will it mean, after all, if his happy marriage is a fluke that put both of them on a path that leads them away from their destiny? 

In a parallel story line, one of Hubbard's students who recently lost his brother in a wreck after a party finds his brother's former girlfriend pursuing him. Likewise, the school principal is taking early retirement after reading her destiny card.

The novel is less about the supernatural that about how people choose their own destinies and make their own happiness. Walsh takes readers along for a fun ride--one that has its own playlist. His session at the Southern Festival of Books is sure to be fun.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

 “Write what you know” is a bit of writing advice that Ron Rash follows consistently. Whether in modern day or during the Civil War, his novels, stories, and poetry are set in the mountains and foothills of Western North Carolina. 

In his latest book, In the Valley, a collection of short stories and a novella, he opens with a story set near the scene of the Shelton Laurel incident, where tensions between Unionist and Confederate sympathizers came to a head with the killing of thirteen Union sympathizers, one a young boy. Rash explored these dark pages of history in his novel The World Made Straight and returns to the rural landscape in “Neighbors.” In this story, a widow is confronted by soldiers purportedly hunting for men loyal to the union, while taking scarce food and livestock. Dependent on neighbors for survival, Rebecca, the protagonist, must keep her late husband’s loyalties secret to avoid jeopardizing herself and her young children.


“When All the Stars Fell,” set in more modern hard times, shows a son in a caught in a dilemma between his father’s unswerving integrity and his own need to get even with what he sees as just one more wealthy, powerful man taking advantage of their family construction business because he can.


Several of Rash’s protagonists are measuring others’ sorrows and losses against their own. The narrator of “Sad Man in the Sky” a helicopter pilot taking tourists to view the changing colors in the mountains, bends the rules to let a broken man rain down gifts on his former stepchildren, unearthing memories of his own service in the Vietnam War. 


Jake, a Brevard art professor, in “L’homme Blessé,” is still reeling from his young wife’s sudden death a year earlier when Shelby Tate, a former student, asks to show him the primitive paintings with which her late great uncle covered his walls after returning from the service in Europe in the mid-40s.When  Jake recognizes the strange animal images from photographs of the Pech Merle cave in France, he goes with Shelby to visit an old man who had served in the war with her uncle to solve the mystery.


In small towns just off I-40, Rash peoples his stories with the broken, the lawless, people caught between good and evil, between helping others or looking the other way. While his stories all have a darkness, they give a glimmer, sometimes just a hint of light. Often the stories end without clear resolution, letting readers imagine what the characters might find just down around the corner.


Opening the pages of In the Valley, Rash’s fans have to fight the temptation to turn to the end of the book to reach the title novella “In the Valley, “a shorter sequel to Serena, his novel from 2008. The title character Serena Pemberton returns to the timberlands she has left for clearing as the deadline for the project completion nears. Many of the characters from the novel—the ones that survived—return for this narrative. In this tale, less a retelling of Macbeth this time, but no less Shakespearean, Rash’s timbermen are forced to work at a deadly pace, with too little food or rest. Serena’s henchman Galloway and his blind mother, with her evil gift of second sense, doom any who oppose Serena or try to escape her reach. Aware that Rachel Harmon and her child Jacob, the illegitimate son of Serena’s late husband, may not have put enough distance between themselves and the amoral timber baroness, Ross, a minor character in the early novel, sees his options narrow.


While the novella, like the earlier novel, lacks stereotypical heroes and antagonists, Rash leaves no question about the true villains and victims in his story.

One of the perennial favorites at Nashville's Southern Festival of Books, Rash will appear in this year's virtual festival.