A tremendously energetic first novel about the childhood, adolescence, and emerging manhood of a troubled Mississippi boy in the decade after Vietnam.
Whether the ghosts are real or in his head, small-town Noel Weatherspoon is haunted, first by his father, declared MIA in Vietnam when Noel was in first grade, then by the Little League catcher who slipped into a coma after ten-year-old Noel slammed into him at home plate. Remorseful yet self-important, Noel lives according to his permanent sense of guilt. A natural outsider, he’s drawn into guilt-affirming behavior with other outsiders—beginning with his only Jewish classmate, then the minister’s rebellious daughter, and finally a fired college professor. The first third of the story is chock-full of events and characters, too many to cite here, as Durkee combines the haunting lyricism of his prologue, told from the comatose catcher’s point of view, with blatantly crude comedy that will have readers laughing out loud despite themselves (think watermelon and horny boys). With more plot turns than you’ll find in a year of daytime soaps, Durkee introduces a slew of people who are colorful yet never caricatures, from the single mother of Noel’s best friend who gets stoned with the boys, unaware that Noel has a naked snapshot of her, to Noel’s stepfather, whose resemblance to Billy Graham underscores his tragicomic relationship with Noel. Perhaps inevitably, the author does lose some steam as he goes along. Although Noel’s college experience has its charms, particularly his twisted, unconsummated affair with a married and fired professor, the moral crisis that he finally confronts seems forced, the author’s fingerprints seen too visibly all over the denouement.
Yet these are quibbles in a novel so rich. First-timer Durkee writes with a southern accent that doesn’t smother a unique voice, and his roller-coaster ride of a story leaves a reader breathless and waiting for more.