When Daniel Musgrove moves from Indiana to Mississippi with his family in the summer of 1972, the white 16-year-old begins a tragicomic odyssey through issues of race, violence, and sexuality that changes him forever.
Such a novel would seem provocative, exploring as it does a complex adolescent experience and an evolving moment in our cultural history, when the transformations of prior years were just beginning to take shape. Unfortunately, this novel falls short of that promise.
The flaws are in the telling rather than the story. Daniel and his white buddy Tim Cousins inadvertently injure Arnita Beecham, their school's first black prom queen, in a car accident on prom night in the spring of 1973. She emerges from a coma believing she is white and ha s been injured by school bully Red Martin , also white. Daniel and Tim let Arnita believe Red was at fault, while Daniel and Arnita fall in love. That spurs Tim, a closet homosexual secretly in love with Daniel, to commit a vicious act at school that fall.
So far, so good. But along the way, subplots occur that read more like social commentary than sophisticated fiction.
Daniel and Tim play instruments in a Baptist musical, written by a pedophile who commits suicide, acted by teenagers more into sex and drugs than faith, and organized by a teacher gradually losing her mind. The boys perform in their marching band's statewide competition, at which black members stop playing to protest songs they consider racist. Daniel's father, Lee, is fired from his chemical manufacturing job right before he qualifies for retirement benefits and blows up his company-owned house. And the boys take dates to a concert by Sonny and Cher, a musical group they mock.
Many of the characters are inconsistent or implausible and thus inexplicable or unconvincing. It is unclear why Arnita's mother, Ella, suspects Daniel from the start, for instance. A spasmodic stream of sudden, random, occasionally irrelevant events deepens the disbelief, especially when characters act criminally with no real consequences, from Lee blowing up his house to Daniel blowing up Red's car. Why does Daniel steal a bicycle outside the police department, right after mustering the honesty to tell the police who actually hurt Arnita?
Several potentially rich aspects of relationships are underdeveloped, especially the hostility between Daniel and Lee, which simmers just below the surface of the novel, and the unhappiness between Lee and his wife, Peg. She leaves him briefly after he buys a dilapidated drive-in theater with an attached residence, using the insurance money from their house fire losses. Pop culture allusions to the 1970s -- Elton John's ``Daniel" among them -- are gratuitous and ancillary, resonating more like obligatory references to the time than saturating shades of an ethos.
And Childress never really weaves comedy and tragedy into a singular tragicomic voice, never really attains the seething irony of that voice the way, say, John Irving does. He offers instead some light humor touched, in one horrific moment, with darkness.