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Southern Discomfort 

Book Review: Rides of the Midway

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At the age of 10, baseball-obsessed Noel Weather-spoon tries to stretch a triple into a home run in a Little League game. He knocks down the opposing catcher, who is carried off the field in a coma, never to recover. Noel, a severe asthmatic, never really recovers, either. And so newcomer Lee Durkee sets the stage for his first novel, Rides of the Midway, which despite this inauspicious beginning is far from a simple tragedy.

Durkee leads us through Noel’s doom-struck life in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he lives with his two younger brothers, mother and stepfather, who is “born again” and a dead ringer for Billy Graham. Noel’s real father is missing in Vietnam, although the boy is sure he’s dead. Noel’s sleep is haunted by Ross, the comatose catcher, and as he grows into a teenager, his ghost-ridden insomnia flowers darkly into dope-smoking, lust and rebellion.

Noel becomes an outsider, a handsome, otherworldly, drug-dealing rebel his schoolmates call “Moon Man.” If he has a goal in life, it is to escape the numbing religious straitjacket of the Deep South, and to be an erotic photographer. Meanwhile, he fights with his stepfather and watches his brothers make their own way out of boyhood. Noel’s guilt, sadness and rage begin to possess him like personal demons, and it takes another tragedy — and the attentions of an older woman — to finally set him free.

Rides of the Midway is, on one level, a classic coming-of-age tale. But very little is formulaic about this fine first novel by Durkee, who lived in Hawaii, Mississippi and New York before moving to Vermont. In Rides he has created a whole atmosphere of dissociation and confusion; Noel is one disturbed individual. But the book’s great strength is that the reader never loses sight of the person inside — an extremely likeable kid whose misfortune it is to be utterly helpless before the tempests of life.

Noel is a sort of holy fool, so certain he is cursed that redemption never enters his mind. Beneath the tough skin, of course, is a gentle, puzzled soul we’re compelled to root for. From the moment he runs into the unlucky catcher, his innocence seems to have vanished forever. He is tormented by guilt and by the need for an atonement he does not know how to make. Accordingly, lying in a hospital, Ross becomes an almost Christlike symbol. But Noel is a true innocent; what he’s really lost is his ability to recognize innocence in himself.

A strong, disquieting undercurrent swirls beneath the surface of this engaging novel, though the dance of fate and circumstance is quite believable. Durkee questions our assumptions about normality, not just by parading the contradictions of religious and social conformity — in this post-modern world, we’re too knowing for that approach to be much fun. In Noel, he gives us a character whose life straddles the boundaries between the real and the surreal, but in whom it’s easy to see a little of ourselves.

Life isn’t cut and dried, Durkee seems to say, and even the most normal façade has cracks through which chaos quietly seeps. No matter how overblown some of the story’s situations become, there’s enough convincing reality to make things genuinely uncomfortable.

And funny. Noel’s worst problem is that he is hapless — and in that sense he is indeed cursed. Pandemonium follows him unerringly wherever he goes. In one marvelously awful scene, Noel takes the love of his life to the drive-in to see The Exorcist after accidentally smoking angel dust. Not only does the theater burn down and the worst-case scenario for back-seat sex become a queasy reality, but the ghost of his father appears to him in the john.

In another scene later on, Noel, now a college student, drops acid with a friend. The two decide to spray-paint a nearby water tower:

Noel’s heart was racing now; he felt suddenly overwhelmed by what he had done and no longer certain that it was strictly hilarious. In the soft darkness he kept studying the giant bloodshot eye until something resembling hunger bloomed inside him. He stretched arthritically and loosened up his legs by shaking them, then he hunch-paced around the catwalk to where he spotted false dawn, a red saw-blade sun cutting through the horizon of pine.

“Jay,” he called out after a moment, his voice sounding almost bored. “The damn woods are on fire.”

Needless to say, Noel and Jay are the unintentional arsonists. Noel is always being blamed for things he has not done, and getting away with his actual misdeeds, which only magnifies his guilt. In this case, the local town is plunged into religious hysteria:

Revival tents and wanderlust evangelists began to invade Poplarville along with a persistent rumor that Billy Graham himself might soon jet into town to help cleanse the air of the satanic cults known to have hailed from New Orleans if not California.

The supernatural, imagined and real, is never far away in Rides of the Midway. In a community where personal relationships with Jesus aren’t unusual, perhaps this isn’t very surprising. But Noel is steeped in a kind of matter-of-fact magic. He is given to moments of clairvoyancy, and may or may not have raised a neighbor’s dog from the dead. There’s a strong sense of magical realism to the novel, but Durkee keeps things grounded with humor. This is a story about real life.

It is also an intense and entertaining read. Durkee’s writing is fast and vivid. He has a sharp eye for detail, mood and shading. Noel’s hometown is all too real: down-at-the-heels and claustrophobic, peopled by a sharply drawn cast of bikers, rednecks, stoners, jocks and fundamentalists. The shabby, desperate mood of the late ’70s pervades everything.

Here, Noel and his girlfriend have gathered at the local hospital on the night Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane goes down in the woods outside of town:

    Rumors of death and dismemberment wafted van to bike to car with the sweet-smelling joints. A joint came Noel’s way and he hit it and passed it along to Layle, who leapt back, then blushed. To redeem herself, she opened a tallboy and inserted her free hand into Noel’s back pocket.

    Then a biker listed his hog toward Layle and wrapped his arm around her waist. He was still straddling his bike. A red bandanna was pirated across his hairline.The back of his leather jacket read: DIAMONDBACKS WHITE BY BIRTH SOUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF GOD

    Leaning farther into Layle, he asked, "You see their new album, sugar, see it, the cover I mean? It's got the whole of them on fire, like they knew - the whole damn band's on fire!"

Rides of the Midway is a head-long, apocalyptic, picaresque tale, as gut-wrenching and addictive as the Black Dragon, the fair-ground ride on which Noel last saw his father, and which gives the book its title. It is tragic, funny and, in the end, even optimistic. Noel is an unlikely hero, but his story of love, death, brotherhood and hope rings true. This is one of those books that resonates in the mind long after the last page has been turned.

Rides of the Midway, by Lee Durkee. W.W. Norton, 316 pages. $25.95.

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