THE WATERMELON KING

Daniel Wallace, Author . Houghton Mifflin $23 (240p) ISBN 978-0-618-22138-7

Wallace returns to Ashland, Ala., the setting of his debut novel, Big Fish, with this fable about a young man discovering his roots in a Southern town with a dark tradition. Eighteen-year-old Thomas Rider knows nothing about his parents, except that his mother, Lucy, died while giving birth to him in Ashland. He heads to the town to quiz the locals, whose testimonies reveal that the beautiful Lucy was much admired by the men in town when she arrived from Birmingham to look after her rich father's property. Yet as she learned more about Ashland, Lucy (who, like most Ashlanders, is white) became appalled at the town's racism, its narrow-mindedness and above all, its yearly fertility rite: the town held a festival during which the oldest male virgin was deflowered in a watermelon field. Lucy deemed the ritual barbaric, and sabotaged it by announcing that she was pregnant by the mildly retarded pariah, Iggy Winslow, who was to be that year's virgin. The celebration had to be canceled, and Ashland's crops promptly died out. Thomas learns not only his mother's story, but also the true identity of his father—and he also has an opportunity to revive the watermelon crop. Wallace never quite finds the right tone for this over-the-top fantasy, which is sometimes more sentimental kitsch than Southern gothic. Lucy's moral certitude is presented simplistically (she's kind to black folks and the village idiot). It's hard to take seriously her outrage over the comical fertility ritual. Overall, this is a slight misstep from an author with much more potential than is demonstrated here. Rights sold in France, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. (Mar.)

Forecast:Now in production, the movie of Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton, with Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor, will when released draw attention to Wallace's work.

Reviewed on: 02/24/2003
Release date: 02/01/2003
Genre: Fiction
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