M.O. Walsh may live in New Orleans, but his heart is with his hometown. Baton Rouge, Louisiana is the state’s second-largest city, its capital and the setting of his powerful Southern gothic debut, My Sunshine Away.
“You have to understand. When people think of Louisiana, they think exclusively of New Orleans. We are okay with that. New Orleans has the culture, the allure. They are The Big Easy. The Crescent City. The Birthplace of Jazz,” Walsh writes. The people of Baton Rouge don’t even have accents. Our parades, when compared to New Orleans, are amateur hour. Even our most raucous bars close at two o’clock in the morning.”
But, “when demographers and social scientist get past the numbers, when they ask more qualitative questions, Baton Rouge inevitably ranks high. We’re off the charts in mysterious categories like ‘enjoys their neighbors,’ ‘had a good weekend,’ and ‘hopes their children will stay close.’ ”
Walsh, who goes by Neal (his given name is Milton O’Neal Walsh, Jr.), is the director of the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop. His fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Oxford American, The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, Best New American Voices.
In My Sunshine Away, an idyllic neighborhood becomes the backdrop for a brutal crime in the summer of 1989. It’s narrated by a thirty-something man who was a teen at the time and inspired by a story Walsh overheard as a boy.
“I always remember overhearing my mom tell a story about a girl from our neighborhood who’d been raped when she was just a teenager. When I overheard this, I didn’t know what it meant at all, didn’t understand the true implications, and so, like kids do, I just went about my way and didn’t think about it,” he recaclls. “As I grew up and got older, it became a strange fascination for me, that a place I thought of as dreamlike could be nightmarish to someone else. I never went back and asked my mom to clarify—I just tried to deal with it through fiction.”
Fifteen-year-old Lindy Simpson is the narrator’s neighbor and number-one desire. On hot nights he waits to glimpse her routinely riding her banana-seated bicycle home.
“[A]t this time of her life, Lindy was easy to imagine yourself with. She seemed to walk that perfect line between a person you suspect you might not deserve and the prize life would be if everything turned out just right. She was playful but not silly, pretty but not exotic, and close but just out of reach,” he writes.
One night, she rides into a trap: a rope pulled taught across her path. The attacker pounces, gags and rapes her, and escapes unseen. The act irrevocably alters Lindy’s life, as well as those of her family, neighbors and the narrator, who becomes one of four suspects. The crime remains officially unsolved, the details murky.
“I’ve become more and more interested in the way people remember things as opposed to how they actually happened—family anecdotes, sitting around the table with your mom talking about something that happened decades ago and remembering it totally different—the literal details, down to who was present. It’s realizing...that we do so much fiction-making in our head all the time, with our own realities, and there’s no way around the fact that it shapes who you are and how you get through the world,” he says. “A lot of people have the same kind of baseline fears, anxieties, traumas, but they end up being such different people. I think a lot of that’s because of the way they subconsciously reorder their memories, what they highlight and what they don’t.”
Beyond whodunnit, the mystery of My Sunshine Away lies in why the narrator chooses to tell this story, this way, at this time. Revealed amid moving meditations on memory, masculinity and the Pelican State, the answers prove hopeful.
“Every moment is crucial,” he writes. “And if we recognize this and embrace it, we will one day be able to look back and understand and feel and regret and reminisce and, if we are lucky, cherish. The way our sister tapped the top of a door frame. The way our father danced in the den. The way a grown man cried in the grass. The way Lindy, or at least some stolen version of her, once raced to a tree in the schoolyard. This is the best we can do. And this is not so bad.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.