(Harcourt)Lamar Kerry, Jr., claims that he is just an "ordinary white boy." After he leaves college, he moves back to his home in Little Falls in upstate New York. He works for his father on the town newspaper, courts Glori, and --- after the disappearance of one of the Latinos of Little Falls, runs away from home with a friend who wants only to fish.He watches the fishing, visits a strange and wonderful baseball game, sees a farmer get mangled by a tractor, and decides that what he wants most in life "is to be needed." So he comes back home.That's it in the story line department --- but the wistful and quite funny charm of The Ordinary White Boy may make the plot incidental. Out of an almost simpleminded story author Clarke has built a can't
-put- it- down novel. His writing is spare, yet manages to include all the information we may ever need to go along with Lamar on his minuscule journey- of- life. (One is reminded of the early John Barth --- where minuscule details and spare dialogue lead to happenings fraught with meaning and rich with the possibility of misunderstanding. It's like a fugue filled with something stranger than simple overtones suggest.)
For instance, a downstate reporter comes to town to look into the murder of the Latino, Mark Ramirez. After some investigating, he telephones our hero to say,
"I thought you should know," Michael Barnes says, "I didn't find out anything."
"Sorry to hear that."
"The chief of police doesn't know shit."
"No, he doesn't."
"I thought maybe he would know something," Michael Barnes says, his voice cracking and breaking like an old, swollen wood door being slammed shut. "I thought he would know something and just not want to tell it to me. I expected him to at least be evil."
"Evil," I repeat.
"But he's not evil. He's just incompetent."
"Can incompetence not be evil?" I ask. It feels very good, throwing Michael Barnes this philosophical curveball. But Michael Barnes isn't even at the plate, doesn't even have a bat. He doesn't appear to be listening to me at all.
"And you were right," he says. "I asked around town. No one seems to give a damn about the murder. They seem totally apathetic."
"Can apathy not be evil either?" I ask.
"There's no story here," Michael Barnes says. Then he hangs up.
With this kind of arch dialogue, Clarke is able to build characters --- even the minor ones --- that jump out and grab us. While on his jaunt away from home, at the otherworldly baseball game, Lamar gets drunk, gets into a fight with a man named Martin --- Lamar told Martin that he was a stupid son-of-a-bitch --- and wakes up minus a tooth:
I suddenly and passionately miss my tooth. I miss it enough to say so outloud.
"I miss my tooth."
"What did you go and do that for?" It is a woman, standing above me, and her voice is familiar enough to make me open my eyes. She looks much like the bartender... red hair, attractive weathered face, blue corduroy shirt, and big, tough shoulders --- except she is chewing gum, blowing impressive pink bubbles....
"Excuse me?" A whistling sound --- something the last bit of steam coming out of a kettle that's been taken off the burner --- comes from and through my gap tooth.
"You got yourself beat up on purpose," she says, blowing another big pink bubble. "Why?"
Turns out that she is Martin's wife. She makes a telephone call to Lamar's friend so that he can go back to his motel.
"Made my phone call, too," Martin's wife tells me as she climbs into the truck.
"Safe to go home?" I ask.
"Always safe," she says. "Of course, I never told Martin I was better than him."
"I didn't really mean it," I say. On cue, my nose throbs and beats like another heart.
After she leaves, he drunkenly thinks about her,
I feel dizzy, something close to what love is supposed to feel like. Maybe I have a concussion; or maybe I am merely suffering from the delusion --- which men like myself always seem to have under the right circumstances --- that my life would be immeasurably better if I had fallen in love with someone like Martin's wife: someone who is tough, unwilling to take any shit, and who drives a pickup truck.
And, drunk as he is, he thinks that it all might have been otherwise:
I am dizzy enough to actually believe that given the right time and place Martin's wife and I could have fallen in love. This would have been my unsatisfactory answer to Martin's wife's question: "I might have fallen in love with you if..." If what, I do not know. This is another road not taken for a reason: the road is closed.
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The whole of The Ordinary White Boy is seamless --- moves along smartly, always giving the feeling that there is more than mere dialogue, descriptions, introspective wonderings. The themes --- small-town myopia, the compromises, the self-pity, the effect of living in a place where most of life has flown away --- weave and interweave flawlessly, convincing us that Clarke is a major minor master.
He only fails where so many writers fail: he doesn't know how to stop the bus. The last twenty pages have the feeling of being glued on. He tries to put on the brakes, but he runs off the road with the improbable marriage of Lamar and his tough-talking love Glori. No matter: the novel is filled with enough fun and diversions and games that we can ignore its small, final, collapse.--- Lolita Lark
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