Rides of the Midway

Lee Durkee, Author W. W. Norton & Company $25.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-04971-8
Not many people have the misfortune of being able to point to one pivotal, disastrous moment in their lives. It's all downhill for asthmatic 10-year-old Noel Weatherspoon after he scores an inside-the-park homer by slamming into catcher Ross Altman and knocking him out cold in Durkee's sharp and engaging first novel. Noel's stubbornness could have made him a hero on the field, but with Ross in a permanent coma, he instead comes out looking like the bad guy and is scarred for life--as a teenager he drinks, smokes, drugs and slums his way through Mississippi schools. The one thing that Noel can't shake is religion, specifically his Baptist upbringing, the disapproval of his strict Methodist cousins and the persistence of born-again friends. Moreover, Noel seems to have psychic powers, seen alternately as blessing and curse. His mother, Alise, goes pretty easy on him, especially because his stepfather--who bears an eerie resemblance to Billy Graham--is the one who always catches him getting into trouble. Noel Sr. is presumed dead in Vietnam; the boy's last image of his father is of him boarding a perilous carnival ride, an apt metaphor for Noel's substance-induced highs and consequent lows. Noel's younger brother, Matt, is a hellion-in-waiting; conversely, their stepbrother, Ben, is a wise little angel who likes everyone and is loved in return. All of the characters are remarkably realized, their quirks and mannerisms so true that it's especially heartbreaking when tragedy strikes, as it inevitably must. Durkee's darkly humorous debut sorrowfully and sincerely portrays a boy's self-damnation. In the tradition of Anne Tyler, this promising first-timer has taken great care to resurrect smalltown living in the '70s and '80s without a hint of sentimentality. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001
Release date: 02/01/2001
Paperback - 316 pages - 978-0-393-32290-3
Open Ebook - 320 pages - 978-0-393-34242-0
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