Monday, June 04, 2001

The Starlite Drive-In by Majorie Reynolds

I want to talk to you this morning about yet another first novel entitled The Starlite Drive-In, by Majorie Reynolds. Had I not known from the jacket cover that this is a first novel, I certainly would not have guessed it. The writing flows evenly; the characters are vivid and believable, and the story is one that is certainly worth telling.

I suspect that, like Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, the author decided on the ending of this story right from the beginning of the telling. Of course, I won’t give away the ending, but, again, like the de Beauvoir novel, I felt less convinced by the ending than by the story itself. But the ending is incidental; this is another coming of age story, and one that is eerily beautiful and wonderfully convincing.

The entire story is told through the eyes of the lead character, Callie Anne, though the mother in the story is at least as important as the girl, and both, in important ways, come of age. Callie Anne lives literally on the lot of a drive-in movie; her father manages the drive-in, cleans it, keeps it up, even serves as projectionist every night.

I think no one who was of my generation could deny the romance of the drive-in theater, and I don’t mean simply because of the steamy action inside the cars. Even today when I drive by a usually abandoned drive-in, I am reminded of the many warm summer nights spent looking at the big screen, and, like her friends, I see Callie Anne as a lucky girl. After all, she gets to see the movies every night, either keeping her father company in the projection booth, or wandering the lot. She has an uncanny ability after a half dozen or so viewings to half lip-read, half simply remember the lines of the actors.

In fact, Callie Anne lives a lonely, isolated life. Besides the fact that the drive-in is located far from the homes of her mostly farm children friends, her mother is quite literally confined to the little house on the lot. What began as simply panic attacks when she ventured into the city have multiplied to the point where she will not, cannot leave her home at all. With Callie Anne, she is a loving and doting mother, and the bond between them is drawn very well. The father, however, is quite a different story. Callie Anne loves him despite his gruffness and hot temper, but she sees clearly that rather than helping her mother to overcome her fears of the outside world, he has instead exacerbated those fears. Though he complains often and bitterly about being bound to the place by his wife’s fears, it is all to obvious that at some level he enjoys the power that he has as her keeper. She depends on him for everything, and he in return is ever more surly with her, belittling and demeaning her before the eyes of her child. Treating her, indeed, as a child in a grown-up’s body.

And this makes for an interesting reversal, for Callie Anne is at that peculiar and painful age when she is quite obviously not a woman, indeed, she still has the stick-figure shape of a child, but neither is she a child. She has been forced into an odd sort of parenting role with her mother, and she finds it necessary as well to intercede between father and mother, trying to soften the blows of his insults, to reassure her mother, to protect her. But she is as afraid of her father’s mood swings, his unpredictable tantrums, and simmering silences as is her mother.

Enter Charlie Memphis—a mysterious figure hired by the owner of the theater to help her father shore up its crumbling fences, broken pipes, and general decadence. Callie’s father is partially disabled, dragging one leg as he walks, and Charlie Memphis has been hired to do the heavy work that her father cannot. What develops is a truly beautiful little love story. First, and quite predictably, Callie Anne falls for this handsome stranger who spins out stories that are romantic and almost believable. Charming and smiling, even tempered and attentive, Charlie Memphis is everything that her father is not. Charlie Memphis quickly comes to see the predicament of Teal, Callie’s mother, and he sees also all the ways in which her husband, whom she always calls Claude Junior, is complicit in her confinement. Big and strong and competent Charlie Memphis is drawn almost immediately to the sweet and attentive vulnerability of Teal, though his attentions are so subtle, so proper, so deferential that even Teal is not frightened or put off by them.

I have, perhaps, already told you more of the story than I ought, but it this beautiful dance between Teal and Charlie Memphis that becomes central to the story. He is able literally to save Teal, to lead her out of her house, out of her obsessive fears, back out into the world of trees and birds and beauty. It is one of most tender love stories that I can recall, and Callie’s place in the story is bittersweet. After all, the man she loves, falls for her mother, and then he accomplishes what she never could in literally loving her mother out of her confinement. Add to this the disloyalty she feels towards her father, since she sees what he does not. She comes to feel that she is an accomplice, her father chained to the summer heat of the projection booth while her mother is resurrected. Happy for her mother, of course, but as mean and unpredictable as her father is, he is her father, and she understands on some level how his anger and depression stem from his feeling trapped by his life, his wife, his disability.

In many ways, I see this simply as a microcosm of many, many marriages. Both partners feeling somehow trapped and diminished by the other, and both somehow acting out their resentment at being trapped, unfulfilled, by withdrawing love. A combination of loyalty and fear keeping them together, and not understanding themselves well enough even to begin a conversation that might free them. Callie Anne is victim, referee, defender; she understands her father’s sense of being trapped, for she, too, is trapped by her mother’s fears. And yet she fears her father for good reason; she sees what his anger does to her mother, sees her diminishing by the day in his eyes and her own. And Callie is, herself, often enough the target of her father’s unpredictable rage.

I don’t want to pretend that this is a great book, or that it suggests some ultimate solution to this unending war that often goes on between two people who cling together out of fear and manage only to destroy each other in the process. But I do think Reynolds manages to tell a simple story that rings with larger truths. And Callie Anne is a figure whom I am quite sure you will not soon forget.

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