Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Shawn Badgley, Fri., Feb. 23, 2001
Rides of the MidwayA Novel
by Lee Durkee
Norton, 320 pp., $25.95
If you ever see Noel Weatherspoon trudging down the street, just cross quickly to the other side. The kid's got issues. Bad luck. Crises, even. Lee Durkee's teenage protagonist in Rides of the Midway is a guilt-ravaged mercy-killer, a dipsomaniacal dope fiend whose hash oil and Quaaludes end up in the hands of high schoolers, a potential Satanist and reluctant faith-healer, a Nikon-wielding voyeur, and a swoon-inducing rebel who has no problem copulating with his stepfather's prize watermelon under the Mississippi moon, but whose own vine quickly wilts when it comes to women ... excepting older, married women, of course.
Poor Noel. Poor Lee Durkee. To view that abbreviated slate of adversities as a plot would be to view his dark debut novel as a success. While its ambition and crushing imagery manage to seize the reader, its misdirection and fantastic yearnings amount to nothing more than a fish tale rife with contradictions. After a 10-year-old Noel renders fellow Little Leaguer Ross Altman comatose in a home-plate collision, our antihero's life becomes torturously secretive, so secretive that even the reader has no real idea why things fall apart so quickly. Instead of examining his conflicted thought process, Durkee allows Noel's exploits to serve as our only glance into his warped persona. But the glance is not enough; the author's third-person narrative, solely dependent on the teen's one-dimensional actions and reactions, bleeds into an empathetic study of a hollow character who exists nowhere but in Catholic high school propaganda, parental nightmares, and -- to a lesser degree -- the self-conscious minds of contemporary American male writers from Fitzgerald and Hemingway to Updike and Mark Cirino (1998's Name the Baby). That is not to say that those authors have always concocted inconsistent characters or incongruous storylines, or that doing so is unexpected in a first novel, but Durkee does rely on omniscient intrusion all too often in Rides. Even a disastrous blow job comes stamped with Durkee's haphazard, disorienting conclusion:
Layle was crouched over his lap and connected to him by long sinews of mucus. She looked like a wild animal. A terrible stench had flooded the back seat. ... He too struggled to escape, then he choked and began to empty his belly onto Layle's long shiny strawberry blond hair.... [author's ellipsis] The world we know is a machine, a design, darkly spinning: therefore God exists.
The plot's lazy, escapist conclusion and dangling supernatural threads (in the first 40 pages, Ross, the little leaguer on life-support, communicates through his sister's Ouija board and Noel heals a dying dog by touching him) don't do much to reinforce Durkee's earthy homily, but Rides of the Midway is by no means a total loss. Much like Noel, it's raw, at times tragically funny, and a vibrant, teasing parade of faces runs through it. (The aptly named religion teacher/temptress Lily Frank appears briefly as one of the author's triumphs.) They are the elements that resonate in a story we've understandably often seen: Someone makes a big mistake and struggles to atone. He may make it, he may not. In the case of Rides of the Midway, however, the reader will never know what happens to Noel, and perhaps this is for the best. We never really knew him, so why should we care?