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The Speed Queen

Stewart O'Nan

Doubleday, $22.95

by Peter McCarthy

In his three previous works of fiction, Stewart O'Nan employed spare, cutting prose to dissect and examine the lives of blue-collar Americans. Like such contemporaries as Pete Dexter, O'Nan seems comfortably enrolled in the less-is-more school of writing. But though his subjects, like his style, have been simple, seemingly commonplace, his books as a whole have been anything but. In The Names of The Dead, he provided a moving exploration of the day-to-day life of an upstate New York truck driver forced to confront the horrors he encountered in Vietnam. In Snow Angels, his best book to date, O'Nan mixed the plain and the extraordinary to create the visceral excitement of a thriller in a literary novel about a boy's awkward teenage years in suburban Pittsburgh. But with The Speed Queen, O'Nan has turned away from the world he depicted with such insight in the past to construct a variation on the standard themes of American pop iconography. Here he seems to be trying to work the alchemy of Snow Angels in reverse--placing literary themes on a foundation of pulp and throwing in some pop references to lend the whole enterprise an aura of authenticity. The upshot is a thriller that is dull.

The Speed Queen is a book that begs for a Hollywood pitch: Marjorie Standiford, the most notorious member of an infamous gang of serial killers, sits on death row in Oklahoma the night of her execution. The unnamed author of a slew of best-selling horror books has secured the rights to her story and sent her a list of questions to answer on tape. Her story is one of cars and crime, sex and drugs; of Lamont, her abusive, car enthusiast-cum-amphetamine addict husband--the actual trigger-man in the killing spree, she claims; and of Natalie, another partner in crime, also her sometime lover. Flashbacks, lots of gory detail. With death staring in her eye, Marjorie's last, entirely unapologetic wish is that her book--a gritty true-crime testimonial by way of bloody road movies like Natural Born Killers and capital punishment films like Dead Man Walking, with a little Russ Meyer kitsch thrown in for good measure--will outsell Natalie's.

Though mechanical and lacking the emotional nuance of O'Nan's previous books, The Speed Queen's runaway storyline works well enough in allowing minor details of the plot to shed light on Marjorie's overall view of what transpired--a view O'Nan deliberately pushes beneath the surface of her words. She meets Lamont while working the night shift at a self-serve gas station, polishing off fifths of cheap vodka ("It was a good job for an alcoholic," she says). He pulls up one night, fills the tank of his "fire-mist red 442," and speeds away without paying; but before Marjorie can fill out the paperwork he's back to pay the tab, "his eyes like an eclipse." Lamont is that stock character of American literature and film, the bad-boy with a heart of gold, and Marjorie of course must fall for him, hard.

She gets pregnant and, against her mother's wishes, marries Lamont. There are little incidents of domestic violence as well as money problems, but at least for a while the couple live in bliss, traveling to car shows and popping speed. Marjorie gives birth to a son, and soon after is arrested: the scene, involving her mother, a car wreck, and a bag of crystal methamphetamine, is humorous. In prison she begins an affair with Natalie, and when they get out, they move in with Lamont. With this love triangle in place, they begin taking speed with increasing regularity until at last they are completely drug-addled and dead broke. Desperate, they cook up a drug-dealing scheme that goes bad, precipitating the novel's violent climax.

O'Nan clearly wants not only to employ such clichs of American desperation but to tell us something about them as well. He seems to have ambitions to introduce elements of psychological and moral awareness into the story, particularly in establishing what was "good" in Marjorie's seemingly grim past. Sometimes he succeeds: His rendering of the alternately euphoric and debilitating aspects of drug use ring true, as does his description of Marjorie and Lamont's gradual slide from pill-popping to shooting up. This is not just hypodermic chic. But when it comes to important developments like the affair between Marjorie and Natalie, O'Nan loses his touch. This could have been an interesting movement in an otherwise "straight" narrative, but he develops the relationship between the two women so quickly--jumping eagerly to tell about the various "devices" they employ in their daily sexual routines--that it seems like nothing more than an excuse for kinkiness. Searching for signs of genuine emotion, the reader is left in the awkward position of voyeur.

Elsewhere there are signs that O'Nan wants to establish Marjorie as an unreliable narrator. She swears her allegiance to absolute truth, but her confused loyalties and loves become apparent as she talks. A deft touch that establishes the suspect nature of her musings is her conscientous replacement of "fuck" with "heck": characters caught in the throes of bloody gun-play holler "Get the heck out of here!" and "What the heck?" O'Nan also closes several chapters with Marjorie pondering various forms of capital punishment in alternately fearful and wryly humorous tones:

They still hang people in Washington and Montana. Nowhere else though. The books make it sound like a hard job. It's supposed to snap your neck, not strangle you like you'd think. You have to get the length of the drop right, and the knot, otherwise it'll tear your head off. I don't see a big difference, but I guess it would be embarrassing. I can't imagine it would be that hard though. A lot of people do it at home.

But these moments in which we get a glimpse into Marjorie's anxieties and fears, as well as a sense of her wit, are all too rare. Mostly O'Nan holds her voice hostage to the requirements of plot development. Her fact-by-fact account is straightforward, flat, designed to prevent insight into her character.

That could very well be the point: Marjorie is terminally separated from her own feelings. She represents a terrible American death-wish, her life of crime intended as an incrimination of a whole culture's fascination with instant gratification. But O'Nan fails to develop a perspective on this material that gets beyond his stylized presentation of it. Referential prose filled with pop symbols can work if there is something there to back it all up. Likewise, a narrator whose voice and insights are rather banal can provide tension when placed against a violent plot. Neither of these transmutations occurs in The Speed Queen, however, and in the end his book is left the cold corpse of a crime novel. The inevitable massacre with which it ends only makes things worse. Lacking the nihilistic elegance of a Peckinpah film, it is just so much blood and guts: we get to see all of it, but to no effect.

In his best work, O'Nan has offered a generous sense of humanity and the sort of exacting vision of America that one remembers long after putting a novel aside. His characters--the universal nature of what they say and do--have been imbued with authenticity, his prose serving to elevate their rugged, blue-collar lives to the realm of high art. Perhaps in The Speed Queen O'Nan wanted to go further, to investigate the mythic substructure and deep pathology behind the surface of American life, as Capote did with In Cold Blood and Mailer did with The Executioner's Song. Perhaps he just needed to get it out of his system. But despite his new hip stance, O'Nan adds little to distinguish The Speed Queen from the more common type of lurid "true crime" works now experiencing a surge in popularity. In short, where a book like Snow Angels stands, The Speed Queen only strikes a pose.

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review

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