blackbirdonline journalSpring 2015  v14n1
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Review | My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015

spacer My Sunshine Away

At an important moment in M.O. Walsh’s debut novel, My Sunshine Away, the unnamed narrator, a sixteen-year-old in a sheltering Baton Rouge suburb, tells his visiting uncle what he’d like to do, if he had the chance, with the girl of his dreams.

“Let me guess,” his uncle says. “Cook her a steak? Protect her from danger? Rip off her bra?”

“I don’t know,” Walsh’s narrator replies. “All of those things, I guess. But I think what I’d really like is to not have to do anything. I’d like to just kind of stand there and look at her, maybe, watch her laugh. Maybe she could tell me something funny.”

The narrator’s uncle persists, asking what comes next.

“I don’t know,” the boy says finally. “Maybe she could tell me something sad.”

The girl in question, Lindy Simpson, is one year older than the narrator. She attends the same private school and lives directly across the street from him on a cul-de-sac lined with prosperous, identical McMansions. Her story is indeed a sad one. At the very beginning of the novel, Lindy is brutally assaulted in plain twilight; her rape, and the unsuccessful search for her attacker, trigger a mystery that, in fits and starts, propels the story of Walsh’s novel. Here, too, the narrator’s indecision and essential passivity, his expressed preference to not have to do anything, seem more than apt in a novel crowded with scenes of watching and listening.

My Sunshine Away presents itself in the guise of a straightforward mystery. In its first pages, the narrator provides abundant factual information about the afternoon of the crime: time stamps and directional logistics, weather conditions, relevant background on the victim’s routines. We also discover that four suspects were identified in the investigation, though no arrests were made. The twist, as Walsh would have it, arrives at the very end of the first chapter. “I should tell you now that I was one of the suspects,” the narrator confesses. “Hear me out. Let me explain.”

Could our narrator be a violent rapist? Walsh sustains this hint of intrigue for perhaps too long here. However, the deep guilt and shame underlying the narrator’s faux confessional stance feel true, earned, exhaustively scrutinized; despite the misdirection of the amateur whodunit, the true subject of Walsh’s mystery emerges, not as the identity of Lindy Simpson’s attacker, but the manifold phantoms of grief, regret, and unrequited desire that have followed the narrator into adulthood. “For every adult person you look up to in life there is trailing behind them an invisible chain gang of ghosts,” the narrator tells us, and the novel functions as an accounting of the various ghosts, living and dead, that pursue him from his past. Besides Lindy Simpson’s rape, the incidents haunting the narrator include the divorce of his parents and his mother’s subsequent descent into loneliness; the death of an older sister, his other sister’s turn to fundamentalism in her grief. Finally and most significantly is the bedevilment of the narrator’s torturously convoluted history of unrequited love for Lindy Simpson. In true adolescent fashion, this crush swerves recklessly between highs of grandiose romantic flourish and lows of craven, familiar, old sexual frustration.

Walsh’s narrator unsettles with the intensity of his feelings. The reader soon understands why this teenager was fingered as a suspect in Lindy’s attack: He watches Lindy through windows and climbs the tree outside her bedroom; he also draws pornographic pictures of her and assembles a secret cache of scraps and souvenirs, including one of the shoes she wore the night of the attack.

More interestingly, he seems to undergo a strange transference in the months and years after Lindy’s unsolved rape. In that time, he tells us, as a reaction to trauma, “Lindy tried on different personalities, all of them false and doomed.” Lindy assumes the trappings of a number of familiar high school types, from the clean-cut athlete to the goth, the party girl, the burnout. “In my guilt, in my love,” the narrator admits, “I followed these personalities too.”

The precise nature of this irrevocable guilt is the mystery woven throughout My Sunshine Away; it is clearly a guilt shared among the various members of Lindy’s upper-middle-class subdivision. The narrator describes his suburban neighborhood as a “paradise” on multiple occasions. The private school he and Lindy attend is a homogenous bubble of unquestioned privilege: “We were all middle- to upper-class white kids, all the products of our parents’ success, and when we played with one another at school we played in the mirror.” Occasionally Walsh’s narrator assumes the first person plural, speaking sometimes for his group of preteen friends, sometimes for the neighborhood as a collective entity. When the investigation into Lindy Simpson’s rape lingers, unresolved, for weeks and then months, the rest of the neighborhood quietly returns to their usual routines: “We played baseball in the street. We chased the ice-cream man from two blocks away.” Parents return to their golf games, their barbecues. “And so, terrible as it was, the summer of her rape carried on, bright and blue-skied, and full of immense pleasure.” One is frequently reminded of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides, in which a chorus of disaffected sons of 1970s suburbia wade through nostalgia for a simpler time (Lindy’s rape occurs in 1989) in order to lyrically parse the fallout from their failure to understand, or prevent, the tragedy occurring in their rarefied midst.

Whereas Eugenides’ novel featured a family of five sisters as the intimately-observed yet ultimately unfathomable objects of its narrators’ obsession, Walsh’s novel hinges on the enigmatic power of Lindy, who first takes the form of the generically idealized girl next door: “Lindy was easy to imagine yourself with. She seemed to walk that perfect line between a person you suspect you might not deserve and the prize life would be if everything turned out just right. She was playful but not silly, pretty but not exotic, and close but just out of reach.” Lindy’s traumatic experience pitches her from the realm of the everyday, track practice and piano lessons and bike rides, into an adult world of shadows and terrible possibility: “The scope of these ills made Piney Creek Road look obscene to Lindy, she said, the way the blossoms on our crepe myrtles bloomed. The lovely street was like an ignorant joke.”

This tragic clarity shapes Lindy into the strongest, most memorable character of the novel, inviting readers to cheer her on as she challenges the narrator’s armchair analyses. In her endless rotation through possible personae, Lindy turns sexpot and repeatedly, somewhat implausibly, offers herself to the narrator. Once, at a drunken keg party following a school dance, she pursues him with lurid questions about the feelings he has unsuccessfully tried to conceal from her. Inexplicably, he rebuffs Lindy when reality diverges from his chaste fantasies, retreating instead to comfortable navel-gazing: “She had expressed some desire, no matter how drunkenly, how clumsily. Surely that must mean something. I began thinking about the number of guys at that party and why, out of all of them, she had chosen me.” Meanwhile Lindy herself slips away to make out with someone else. Months later, the two reconnect over the telephone to gossip about the unfolding TV investigation of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Walsh is fond of these real-life cultural touchstones: the narrator pinpoints the moment he fell in love with Lindy as the date of the Challenger explosion in 1986; he and his mother share an affinity for the TV drama Unsolved Mysteries—especially its iconic host, Robert Stack). In these phone calls Lindy becomes a femme fatale, the dark lady across the street:

“Nobody knows me,” she’d say.
“I do,” I’d tell her.
“You think you do,” she’d say.
She was right. I thought I did.

Ultimately the question of how much the narrator understands about the object of his affection becomes secondary. Despite numerous assurances of his undying devotion to Lindy, his actions drive her away, again and again. Though plausible, this gulf between action and understanding feels overdrawn in Walsh’s novel, risking the reader’s impatience. The narrator sabotages his relationship with Lindy a few too many times for us to really believe the depth of his feelings for her. In a different novel this disconnect might contribute to our sense of an unreliable narrator, adding to the intrigue of the ostensible mystery, but instead the narration stalls, perhaps aware of its own break with causality, dissolving into bits of light philosophizing, dispersed throughout the novel. Lines like “Is there ever a love, any love, made of answers?” or “Life is made up, ever increasingly, of what you cannot change. One man’s daughter. Another man’s wife. The song plays on.” The reader welcomes scenes in which Lindy draws the narrator out of his claustrophobic self-consciousness, and in this way we begin to understand the nature of her allure.

The most dramatic events of the novel occur not behind locked doors or drawn shades, but out in the open spaces of this leafy cul-de-sac. The rape occurs “directly on top of the sidewalk of Piney Creek Road, the same sidewalk our parents had once hopefully carved their initials into, years before.” Lindy’s father cuts down an enormous oak tree after one of Lindy’s sneakers—twin to the Reebok in the narrator’s strange shrine—appears in its branches. Various other climactic showdowns and accusations transpire in the driveways and front yards of this otherwise quiet neighborhood, physical manifestations of the narrator’s near-pathological insistence on pouring out his memories to us, however meandering or inconsequential. The fact that these episodes occur in plain view, within the well-scrubbed confines of this particular street, both reinforces and interestingly complicates the prevailing sense that things on Piney Creek Road are not what they seem.

Walsh’s narrator puts great store in the notion of place, insisting that, after all, Louisiana is a unique, special case, best decoded by insiders. “It’s hot here, yes. It rains and it floods,” he quips, in one-line paragraphs redolent with pique. Bemoaning a national tendency to associate Southern stories with tragic hyperbole, and singling out news coverage of Hurricane Katrina for perplexing disdain, the narrator grouses, “Another catastrophe? Another injustice? Forgive me if I don’t look surprised.” What bothers the narrator so much, apparently, is not these tragedies themselves but “the way these stories return (to) dog us, the way they are altered by the outsiders who hear them.” What is more, he soliloquizes, “We are relegated to a different human standard in the South, it seems, lower than the majority of this great nation, as if all our current tragedies are somehow payback for our unfortunate past.” While this idea would seem to resonate nicely with the larger themes of guilt, punishment and destiny so prominent in the novel, the narrator dodges further elaboration of his theory of history and penance, focusing instead on familiar tropes of hot po’ boys and crawfish boils and Southern hospitality. These truths, he argues, constitute the real Louisiana. In another breath he chafes at cliché depictions of his beloved state; the reader wonders, what is really being questioned here? What alternative narrative is being put forward?

These distractions aside, one senses that Walsh gets it right in the narrator’s early account of how Lindy Simpson’s assailant would have experienced the specificity of this place in the dim, dusk-lit minutes before a terrible crime occurred:

This man, or this boy, was undoubtedly sweating as he crouched in the bushes, undoubtedly eaten alive by insects. They gnash you here. They cover you. And so it is not a mistake to wonder if he might have been dissuaded from this violence had he lived in a more merciful place.

This near-Biblical evocation as a darkly lush paradise, overripe and overrun by insects and their appetites, shows Walsh at his most lyrical, and the characterization of this place at its most vivid and purposeful. By the end of My Sunshine Away, a long hoped-for mercy pours down like rain on the swamps and the subdivisions, and a sort of truth is revealed about what happened to Lindy Simpson. Certain families are granted fleeting moments of reunion, and for others, new hope for the future appears in (somewhat) surprising places. Some of this hope feels plotted, forced.

What remains, though, and what Walsh has captured so well—despite his impulse toward the sentimental resolution—is the illusory calm of an impasse, a lull between rounds, of the random brutality that can permeate even the most tranquil of settings. A latent evil in the poetic banal: the strange perfume of the mosquito abatement truck, the smell of fresh-cut grass. The hungry insects gnashing in the bushes.  end  

M.O. Walsh’s stories and essays have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine and The Southern Review. His short stories have been anthologized in Best New American Voices 2007, Best of the Net, and Louisiana in Words. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi MFA program, and he is the Director of the Creative Writing Workshop at The University of New Orleans. He also directs the The Yokshop Writers Conference in Oxford, MS.

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