"Rides of the Midway" by Lee Durkee

With this full-tilt novel of youthful catastrophe and hellbent debauchery, a bartender kicks in the door of Southern literature.

Published February 21, 2001 7:04PM (EST)

No reason to mince words here: With this eruptive debut novel, Lee Durkee, a Mississippian who has tended bar in Vermont for the past 15 years, has just kicked in the door of Southern literature. Or maybe that splintered door belongs to American lit; it's getting harder and harder to tell them apart these days, what with the great Cormac gone cowboy and the rest of Faulkner's chillen fumbling around the strip malls. Durkee's publisher is likening him to John Irving, and while that comparison is understandable -- for one, the novel features a fatal baseball snafu reminiscent of Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" -- it is by far too epidermal. Durkee writes with the verve of a young Philip Roth or Thomas McGuane:

Dangerously thin, dressed in a pleated black dancer's skirt with black leotards below and tight black ribbed shirt above, Amber appeared torn between death and disco.

The cop was squinting at the Polaroids so intently that it appeared the developing process was of telepathic origin.

But, even more than these, Durkee calls to mind the early Barry Hannah -- rattling his lingual sabers, jitterbugging on the edge of absurdity, lobbing lit firecrackers at his startled audience. "Rides of the Midway" is a manic, sloshed, whiny, fizzy, horny, noisome and wondrous novel.

Set in the '70s in the skankier, preacher-riddled portions of south Mississippi, the action begins when 10-year-old Noel Weatherspoon, playing Little League ball for the Standard Oil Red Sox, shatters the collarbone of the opposing catcher and sends the poor tyke into a coma. This collision, however haphazard and incidental, launches the decade-long spiritual unraveling that constitutes the bulk of Durkee's story: Noel plunges headlong into drugs, pornography, voyeurism, sex with a watermelon (leading, it begs mention, to a family supper worthy of the Portnoys), mercy killing, more drugs, vandalism, adultery and so on.

It's an extravagantly hedonistic spiral, to be sure, but not one wholly nihilistic; underpinning the novel's deft and toothsome hilarity is Noel's hopped-up and half-witted grab for theological autonomy, a Baudelairean effort to escape the prepackaged salvation championed by his Billy Graham look-alike stepfather and church-soaked community and to find God -- or, less concretely, whatever designer propels this "darkly spinning" world -- on none but his own terms. Noel's effort is a vital, almost-involuntary one, as vital and involuntary as this coarsely graceful novel feels -- as vital and involuntary, that is, as the truest art.

By Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.

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