Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Wilmington book review

Here's a great book review of Don McCallister's Kings Highway




By Ben Steelman
Staff Writer
ben.steelman@starnewsonline.com

"You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days," says Burt Lancaster's aged hustler in the movie Atlantic City. And you should have seen Myrtle Beach in those days, too - before the condos, before the monster outlet malls, before the eight-lane highways and the seawalls, before lap dancing replaced shag dancing.

Columbia, S.C., author James D. McCallister remembers it well, and his first novel is an exercise in a sort of rueful nostalgia.

King's Highway takes us back to the spring of 1978, through the recollections of Ray DeKalb, a slacker before his time at "Southeastern University" in Columbia.

Ray isn't sure who he is, or what he wants to be, but he's emphatically clear on what he doesn't want to be: a small-town up-country lawyer with political impulses, the future his daddy has mapped out for him, and the one that his brother, Jenkins, has already embraced.

Ray's a kind of passive-aggressive rebel, surly but not daring enough to do much to jeopardize the trust fund checks that keep him in beer, vinyl LPs, paperbacks and low-grade marijuana.

The South Carolina public school system and a few semesters at Southeastern have given him a patchy, unsystematic education: We know Ray's read the usual undergrad classics of the period: Catch-22, Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and a little Harlan Ellison. (He quotes the title, at least, of Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.")

Ray's main passion, though, is music, especially Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy, which he's just discovered. (The chapter titles in King's Highway are all Zevon singles from that album.)

Eventually, angst and a half-hearted, busted romance send Ray packing his bags and heading for his old Nirvana of Myrtle Beach, to rent a motel room, find a job and figure out what happens next.

At least he checks off a couple of goals. In a day or two, he's swinging a broom at The Pavilion, a real-life Myrtle Beach amusement park. In a few days more - given his smart mouth and a low-grade talent for voice impersonations - he's scored a promotion to top clown in the dunking booth.

Ray also gets lucky, first with his fairly-well-preserved landlady, then with Jamie, with "her little flip-up bangs and her golden-brown skin," a Jersey runaway who's just split with her smalltime-dealer boyfriend. Fortunately, she made off with some of the merchandise before she left. Life is good. For a while.

Like most 20-year-old philosophers, Ray isn't quite as brilliant, or as original, as he thinks he is.

There's a certain satisfaction in feeling superior to the Pavilion customers who think chili dogs are an appropriate diet for their toddlers. And, of course, Ray sees right through the aging beach bums and the hairy hangers-on who keep talking about the epic sci-fi novel they're going to finish one of these days. What he can't see is that he's no different than they are, and heading in the same direction.

Nor does he realize that a mutual affection for energetic sex and controlled substances is a shaky foundation for a deep and lasting relationship.

Naturally, this being Myrtle Beach, and this being the '70s, tougher drugs than dope soon enter the picture, and meaner characters as well.

There's not much surprise about where King's Highway is heading, and McCallister leaves a few of his characters only half-sketched. Perhaps, too, there needs to be another ironclad rule: Just as white people probably shouldn't try to reproduce African-American dialect, maybe Southerners should avoid trying to reproduce fluent New Jersey-ese.

The author hits the bull's-eye, though, with his main character: Myrtle Beach itself, the Cloud Cuckoo-Land of misspent youth - what it felt like when we thought the fun would never end, and what it felt like when it finally did.

Ben Steelman: 343-2208

ben.steelman@starnewsonline.com

1 comment:

York "Budd" Durden said...

This novel left me weak-kneed and horny. McCallister will surely go far...or is it too far?