Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Speed Queen by Stewart O'Nan

Every so often I make the pledge to only read really good books -- ones that matter, that make you look at the world differently afterward -- but then realize, after hitting one, that a steady diet of that could be dangerous.

The Speed Queen is a great example. After I read Last Night at the Lobster, a few weeks back, I thought I should read some more Stewart O'Nan and see if I agreed with his glowing reputation. On the basis of those two books, I think the critics are justified in their praise -- but he's also practically the American Ian McEwan.

Speed Queen is the first-person narrative of Marjorie Standiford; she's talking into a tape recorder on the night before she's to be executed by the state of Oklahoma. She's the central figure of the three "Sonic Killers," whose deeds shocked a nation. And she claims that she didn't kill anyone -- or, at least, she wasn't the one who directly killed any of them.

Marjorie is answering a set of questions sent to her by "America's King of Horror," who has bought the rights to her story for his next book; she hopes to counter what she calls the lies of a book written by her ex-lover Natalie, who is already out of jail. She tells us a bit about her childhood and lot more about herself and her husband Lamont. She and Lamont start using drugs, and, as using turns to dealing, a number of events fall into place one by one. Marjorie is in a car accident and goes to jail on a possession charge, where she meets Natalie. Once they get out of jail, Natalie moves in with Marjorie and Lamont (and their infant son). And a drug deal goes badly wrong, sending the three "Sonic Killers" out. As Marjorie tells it, none of it is exactly her fault -- but we can see that she could have stopped things in several places.

The story is compelling; Marjorie's voice is mesmerizing. But from the first page, any careful reader knows what's going to happen, and has a sense of how horrible it's going to be. Reading The Speed Queen is like watching an execution in slow motion; it's impossible to look away but it's painful to see.

I've come to believe that the true test of a great book is that it requires work: sometimes intellectual work (though that's more common for a merely good book), and nearly always emotional work. That's why a steady diet of great books can be upsetting: it's poking at the same exposed nerve endings over and over and over again. And so I find that I run from a great book to mediocre ones for a week or two, to build up some scar tissue.

The Speed Queen is a great novel, by a writer I'm coming to believe is one of our great contemporary novelists. But don't start it if you're already emotionally shaky; this is a book that demands a lot from the emotions of its readers.

(Note: I read this in a library hardcover, with a silvery cover featuring a grid of images. I had to return the book before I could scan its cover, and there's no decent-sized version of it online. The image above and below is the current trade paperback.)

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