With the opening line of his second novel, The Big Door Prize, M.O. Walsh asks, “How can you know that your whole life will change on a day the sun rises at the agreed-upon time by science or God or what-have-you and the morning birds go about their usual bouncing for worms? How can you know?” Appropriately, the answer arrives on the book’s final page. In between lies much confusion, hope, odd behavior, and ultimately sheer joy for the residents of fictional Deerfield, Louisiana.
The action is set in motion with an air of old-fashioned sci-fi so palpable you can almost hear the theremin in the background. Consider, if you will, a small Southern town like any other, with a historic square, shops “that hang flowering baskets,” a Catholic high school, an upcoming festival, and a grocery store. In this grocery appears, almost as if by magic, a cheaply constructed plywood box called the DNAMIX, a sort of Twilight Zone photo booth. Slide $2 into one slot and a Q-tip mouth swab into another, and a hidden device analyzes your DNA before presenting a slip of paper printed with your name, age, height, and “potential life station.”
Lines form in the market, and many townsfolk part with two bucks. The results cause most to question previous choices, to weigh their current “life station” against its potential. Among them is Cherilyn Hubbard, a builder of novelty birdhouses, who is married to Douglas, a high school history teacher. They are a perfectly ordinary, generally happy couple approaching 40 with a small assortment of vague regrets. He wants to learn jazz trombone. She wants something more, although she has no idea what shape “more” might take until she receives a surprising suggestion from the DNAMIX booth. Other characters affected by the machine include two troubled teens, the town mayor, a priest, a principal, and a recovering alcoholic who offers a free taxi service.
All of these characters are fully realized and artfully drawn. While some may be more central than others to the tangled web of action launched by the machine’s arrival, there is no single protagonist. What emerges instead is the life of the town, a mosaic of folks like those found in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town — neither as simple as residents of Mayberry nor as devious as those of Spoon River. (Not coincidentally, an actual mosaic photograph of townspeople, commissioned for an upcoming festival celebrating Deerfield’s founding, becomes a central plot device.) From the opening line, the reader has the sense of a wise, omniscient narrator peeking into various bars, cars, and bedroom windows, a twinkle in his eye as he brings some mischief to the lives within.
The twinkle seems to have been borrowed from the late singer-songwriter John Prine. The book’s title is a line in the Prine song “In Spite of Ourselves”: “Against all odds, honey. We’re the big door prize.” More than half of the 37 short chapters are also taken from Prine lyrics: “Level on the Level,” “There’s Flies in the Kitchen, I Can Hear Them A-Buzzin’,” and more. The book is dedicated to Walsh’s family and “the still-singing heart of John Prine.”
Just as Prine’s music critiqued modern America while celebrating ordinary Americans, Walsh portrays likeable people caught up within a shallow, materialistic culture, his voice more personal than preachy. Plot lines that in another book would lead to divorce, violence — even a possible mass school shooting — defy the odds here in ways that can’t be described without spoiling them. As when listening to Prine, the reader is likely to smile at characters and comic events, but also to think about the issues they raise long after the music ends.
One of Walsh’s memorable characters, Jacob, is a nerdy teen mourning the death of his twin brother early in the novel. He discovers at a key moment just how much he cares for his history teacher Mr. Hubbard and for all the others in the town. “What a glorious and invisible map,” he realizes. “All of us connected in so many silent ways. Our friends. Our families. The people we are soon to meet.”
These connections lie at the heart of The Big Door Prize, and what an enormous heart it is.
Michael Ray Taylor is author of Hidden Nature: Wild Southern Caves, a mixture of memoir and subterranean natural history. He chairs the communication and theatre arts department at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas and will appear at the 2020 Southern Festival of Books.