Daniel Wallace is best known for Big Fish, the book the Tim Burton movie of the same title was based on. The Watermelon King is set in the same fictional Alabama town as Big Fish, Ashland, and they actually deal with some of the same themes as. Daniel Wallace is a writer of stories about stories – stories that deal with the occasionally thin line between a story and a lie, with the instances in which stories save us, and with the hope and meaning they can bring into our lives. But he also deals with the occasions in which that hope falls apart, and you desperately long to reach behind a story and touch the plain facts – the naked truth. There is a character in this book, Edmund Rider, who’s at first very reminiscent of Big Fish’s Edward Bloom: both are men made out of stories, and both immensely frustrate their grandson and son because of this. However, as you read on and get to know these characters you realise that The Watermelon King is a much darker tale than Big Fish.
This is the story of Thomas Rider, an eighteen-year-old boy who doesn’t know much about his own past. He was raised by his grandfather, and all he knows is that his mother died the day he was born. So he goes back to Ashland, Alabama, the town where he was born, to ask the townspeople what they know about his mother. This book is divided into several sections, and in the first one we’re given the reports of several people who knew Lucy Rider. There is an Old Man; there is Jonah Carpenter, Town Carpenter; there is Mrs. Parsons, Innkeeper; there is Iggy Winslow, Town Idiot; there is Vincent Newby, Negro. And lest these seem like ugly stereotypes (which indeed they are), let me clarify that Wallace presents the short descriptive and dehumanising titles by which these people are known only to expose their absurdity before the undeniable fact of their humanity.
This narrative structure immediately drew me into the novel, as I love stories in which a community talks about its history and its past. The facts, of course, are necessarily mythologised, but that only adds to the novel’s appeal. And by “mythologised” I certainly don’t mean that everything in the stories the townspeople tell is pretty. There’s racism, there’s small-mindedness, and there’s plenty of hatred. But there is also a moving sense of nostalgia – a nostalgia whose terrible consequences we only fully grasp as the story progresses.
The second section of the book tells the story of Thomas Rider’s upbringing and of his life with his grandfather; while the third tells us what actually happened when he went back to Ashland beyond the stories that people told him about his mother. One of the things we learn is that Thomas Rider was told is the story of the Watermelon King. This story is a perfect example of Wallace’s magic realism and of how he embeds his stories with myths:
Once upon a long time ago, beneath this sun, in these fields, our world was full of watermelons. Everywhere you looked there were watermelons. You couldn't walk without stepping on them. Not one person thought to grow them; they seemed to grow themselves. It was said you could watch a vine grow, that you could actually see it move, creeping along the ground as though gripping for something to hold on to, that a watermelon would swell before your eyes like a balloon, and that some grew so large, so enormous, that children could stand upright within their hollowed-out shells.This is, however, only the beginning. Ashland was Watermelon Capital of the World, and to celebrate this abundance, every year there was a Watermelon Festival. In this festival, [possible spoiler, though this is revealed fairly early on] the Watermelon King – the oldest male in the town who was still a virgin – would be crowned, and he’d offer his virginity as a sacrifice for the town.
This sounds like the story of an old Pagan rite, but by stretching it until modern times, Daniel Wallace explores its emotional impact and its implications when it comes to gender roles. How would the Watermelon King feel as he was crowned? The rite was of course a public humiliation, a mark of failure in one’s “manhood”, and a terribly invasion of what is most personal by the public sphere.
In this novel Daniel Wallace portrays the dark side of small towns in a way that almost reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. It’s not a very flattering portrait, but having grown up in one I do know that despite their charms small towns can indeed be cruel. Few things are uglier than a community’s sense of entitlement to anyone’s private affairs.
There are plenty of delicate and difficult things in this novel, but Daniel Wallace handles them with immense grace. His writing is simple, beautiful, and often very moving. The story unfolds perfectly at the exact right pace, and its full darkness only becomes obvious towards the end. There is much more that I wanted to say about this book, about why I found it so powerful and moving, but I really don’t want to spoil the horrifying final revelation for you. So I’ll urge you all to find out for yourselves instead.
I was very excited to discover that Daniel Wallace will have a new book, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, out next week. I definitely plan on picking it up soon, as well as Ray in Reverse.
The other day I read a great interview with Wallace at the Southern Literary Review, in which he named Kurt Vonnegut, Walker Percy and J. D. Salinger as some of his favourite authors. I’d share the link, but unfortunately it contains one badly-disguised major spoiler for The Watermelon King.
This was my third read for the Southern Reading Challenge, and the last of my “official” choices. But because the challenge goes on until the end of August and I’ve been enjoying it so much, I will probably add an extra or two.
Other Blog Reviews:
A Fondness for Reading
The Inside Cover
A Striped Armchair