Heavy-handed fantasy set in the Deep South, from a hip young novelist (Ray in Reverse, 2000, etc.).
A young man trying to uncover the mysteries of his birth is one of the best premises in this business, and that’s what Wallace gives us. Thomas Rider knows he was born 18 years ago in the boondocks town of Ashland, Alabama (scene of Wallace’s debut, Big Fish, 1998), and he knows that his mother Lucy died bringing him into this world—but that’s about it. So, with the encouragement of his girlfriend Anna, he sets off for Ashland by himself to talk to the folks there and see what he can find out. His mother didn’t live in Ashland very long, apparently, and moved there only in order to look after a dilapidated house that her father had bought as an investment. Thomas talks to all the townsfolk who might have known Lucy (real-estate agent, innkeeper, village idiot, carpenter, etc.) and learns in short order that Ashland was (and is) a deeply strange place. Once famous as the “Watermelon Capital of the World,” it hasn’t had a watermelon crop since Lucy Rider died in childbirth. What does one have to do with the other? Apparently what assured the success of the town’s crops was an annual fertility rite in which the oldest male virgin in Ashland would be deflowered during a full moon in a watermelon patch. It seems that Lucy, when she moved to town, objected vehemently to this practice—and attempted to sabotage the rite by deflowering the chosen victim herself before the ceremony could take place. In the course of his inquiries, Thomas finds out who his father was, but that comes as something of an anticlimax, frankly, to learning the much weirder tale of his birthplace.
For a fable, Wallace strikes a completely wrong tone, narrating his tale in short, ponderous, testimony-like recollections by various townsfolk. The result: heavy, pompous, and dull.