Book by M.O. WALSH
Most of us who are over 20 can point to a few big events that set us on the road to adulthood. For the never-named narrator of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel, My Sunshine Away, it was the rape of his teen crush during her sophomore (his freshman) year of high school, Lindy Simpson. The narrator and Lindy have been neighbors since grade school, during which time he has harbored an innocent, but obsessive love for her. The search for the unseen rapist—who knocked her off her bike and forced her face into the ground—brings all the neighborhood oddballs into suspicion. It also brings the narrator closer to realizing his puppy-like fantasy. Unfortunately, he implicates himself in the process, in multiple ways. During this time, his divorced parents are still acting out their drama, and then his sister is killed in a car accident, leaving no adult—except a loveable but unstable uncle—with time or emotional bandwidth to spare for him as he lurches toward maturity.
There’s no shortage of coming-of-age novels. Among the qualities that distinguish this one is the memoir-like voice of the narrator and the unsentimental, yet forgiving examination of his immature self and his teenage posturing. Now grown and settled, the narrator understands that his actions were at once classic teen behavior and almost invariably the “wrong” thing to do, yet they revealed the true nature of the people around him, progressively peeling away his naïveté.
Another quality that lifts My Sunshine Away above the coming-of-age glut is the vivid setting, a white, middle-class subdivision of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The kids of Woodland Hills mostly go to the private Perkins School. I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a morning’s drive from Baton Rouge. Walsh’s dead-on description of the brutal Louisiana summer stirred nostalgia and commiseration:
You should know:
Baton Rouge, Louisiana is a hot place.
Even the fall of night offers no comfort. There are no breezes sweeping off the dark servitudes and marshes, no cooling rain. Instead, the rain that falls here survives only to boil on the pavement, to steam up your glasses, to burden you.
The ninth chapter is a defense of the narrator and author’s native state that begins: “I believe Louisiana gets a bad rap.”
“We are relegated to a different human standard in the south as if all our current tragedies are somehow payback for our unfortunate past.” Yes, the state is corrupt, its racial tensions endemic, its floods catastrophic. But there’s the food, the culture, the community. Red beans and rice or seafood po-boys are “small escapes from the blatantly burdensome land.”
This chapter of praise is wonderfully placed within the architecture of the book. Yes, it interrupts the narrative arc, but it also lightens the tone. Like the meals, this chapter offers a break from the bleak subject—a teenage girl’s rape; it doesn’t undo the awful, but it does give us, the readers, a reprieve. Chapter 28, a warm-hearted and evocative comparison of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, plays a similar role after a fraught and literally climactic chapter in which the narrator realizes that he never understood or even really empathized with Lindy’s trauma, so obsessed was he with his own wants.
Defying the literary tendency to define the South by its own history (this isn’t a story about race), Walsh ties the narrative to national events. The narrator traces his love of Lindy to the day of the Challenger explosion when he was in fifth grade. His school had assembled to watch the first teacher in space, only to witness a disaster. In the chaos, Lindy throws up on herself and he offers his shirt, a moment of vulnerability only witnessed by the teacher, his first protective act.
We don’t see the rape. The narrator wasn’t there, and a furious Lindy tells schoolmates it never happened when the rumors circulate. Instead, we hear about the immediate aftermath—how Lindy’s mother found her concussed in bed, her bloodstained underpants on the floor, next to one Reebok running shoe whose mate was nowhere to be found. The narrator takes us through a series of portraits of suspects. There’s the brutal would-be football star, Bo Kerns, whose harelip is almost as much a grounds for suspicion as his behavior. In Perkins School, “there no were wheelchairs or physical deformities… In this environment Bo Kern’s harelip rattled you.” There’s Mr. Landry, a psychiatrist, who with his wife, has fostered a slew of kids, and their tortured (literally, we learn) adopted son Jason, who introduces the narrator to the joys of pornography, and gives him a photo of Lindy that he’s taken from his father. (All the males in the neighborhood have the hots for the athletic, pretty Lindy.)
And there’s our hero, the narrator, whose potential guilt comes up twice. The first time the police are questioning all young males in the neighborhood, he doesn’t even understand the term rape. He thinks it means to get totally beaten in a game, as in when LSU lost a football game 44 to 3, and someone says, “We got raped.” The second time, his own mother finds a batch of pornographic drawings he’s made of Lindy, while he’s off on a disastrous bonding/fishing expedition with his father. She doesn’t turn him in after he persuades her that he’s in love with Lindy and not dangerous. But she befriends Lindy’s mother, terrifying him that she’ll spill the beans during one of their chats.
Over the course of the book, the narrator goes back and forth over the events of the years surrounding the rape, introducing characters and dropping them, weaving in the threads of various lives. We like him, and we can’t believe how inept he is. Shortly after the rape, Lindy blames him for letting the word out and refuses to speak to him for a year, during which time, she experiments with cutting herself, bulimia, and multiple style changes, which the despondent narrator tries to imitate to win her. He drops soccer, the one sport he’s good at, and takes up guitar. At a party, he gets up on stage with the band and plays a rocking version of the Guns N’ Roses song, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and afterwards, a drunk Lindy breaks her silence, offering herself to him. This fantasy outcome turns horrible. He can’t bring himself to accept. Later, she collapses in a drunk stupor with FAKE written on her forehead in indelible marker, having fallen from victim to slut in the eyes of the other boys.
But the ice is somehow broken and a few months later, she calls, and they bond over the improbable true-crime drama of Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibal-rapist-murderer, whose deeds have just come to light and are the subject of constant TV coverage. By now, it’s 1991. Over the ensuing months, they talk every night on the phone, and he keeps fantasizing about a second chance, but when she calls his bluff, he’s again unable to accept. Only this time, he has gained some insight into his own selfishness and the depth of Lindy’s hurt. He decides that the only way to redeem himself is to identify the rapist, something that no one, including the police, has tried very hard to accomplish. This laudable instinct also goes awry. The ensuing debacle finally frees the narrator from his adolescent sexual purgatory, in what seems like the dénouement, but isn’t yet.
The novel jumps ahead to the narrator’s last encounter with Lindy, years later, at a Louisiana State University football game. He’s married to Julie, another girl from his high school. She’s seven months pregnant with their child. Lindy is married. Everything fine? Not quite. The narrator has several more revelations before he finally comes out with why he still feels guilty about Lindy and why he’s telling us now. (No, he’s not the rapist.)
Walsh keeps the suspense taut through all these twists. Occasionally, he overdoes the foreshadowing, introducing characters or ideas then dropping them with a “more about that later” or other such phrase. Walsh doesn’t do this for every important plot element, but it shows up enough that I felt played with, as if the carrot were always just out of reach.
More vexing is the narrator’s anonymity. It makes reviewing awkward, for one thing. I got tired of writing “the narrator.” What is the dramatic (or moral) reason for making the narrator anonymous? This narrator’s personality is so present, his voice so strong, his development so specifically his that he can’t be described as an Everyman. The only other first-person novel with an anonymous narrator that I know of is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison’s narrator was anonymous to illustrate the systematic rendering of black Southerners as invisible, as non-people. Walsh’s narrator doesn’t suffer from this objectification: every character recognizes him as a person. Though the narrator purposely hides parts of himself from other people, this is not beyond the realm of normal human psychology. We all hide things, yet it doesn’t diminish ourperson-ness. Walsh is a fine writer, and a nameless narrator can be an effective rhetorical device, but it comes across as gimmicky in My Sunshine Away.
The novel’s title comes from a line of the song, “You Are My Sunshine,” written by the late Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis: “Please don’t take my sunshine away.” While the chorus is pleasant and campy, the verses shift toward the sinister: I’ll always love you and make you happy / If you will only say the same / But if you leave me to love another, / You’ll regret it all one day.
The song shows the porous border between love and violence. A man thinks back on himself as a boy who has a crush on a girl and draws pornographic pictures of her. And he thinks about the man who assaulted her and wonders what kept the boy who had the crush and the white-hot yearnings from becoming the second man or someone like him? The clarity of age reveals all.
A final comment on the odd paucity of football in a book set in Baton Rouge, home of LSU and its absolutely insane football fans. Football appears only twice, at the beginning and end, when the narrator and Lindy meet. This makes sense. As a cranky teenager, the narrator wants nothing to do with such mainstream pastimes. His attendance at a game as an adult is a sign of normalcy. And from the writer’s point of view, leaving football out of the novel allowed him to focus on the story.
James Dickson teaches English and Creative Writing at Germanton High School in Madison, MS. His poetry appears in The Louisiana Review, Spillway, Glassworks, and other journals.