The Big Door Prize
by M.O. Walsh
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Sep. 8, 2020
384 Pages, $27.00
My first conversation with M.O. Walsh happened on the phone in 2017, me traveling in Uruguay, he working in New Orleans. The call dropped with a crazy crashing sound. When he called back twenty minutes later, I made some bad joke about what government agency was tapping into our phones. Walsh asked if there was an alien crash that disrupted our call, and we both laughed at our weird introduction to each other’s worlds. Walsh directs the Creative Writing Workshop program at the University of New Orleans, where I attended and received my Masters of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing. Walsh’s prior novel, the award-winning My Sunshine Away, published in 2015, was a New York Times Bestseller. Walsh is a southern writer, who was born in Baton Rouge, LA, and got his MFA at Ole Miss. He runs a writing conference every year called Yok Shop, that hosts craft talks and workshops for writers in Oxford, Mississippi.
When you meet Walsh, who is oftentimes sporting a baseball-cap-casual vibe, you see a man who is chill, calm, unassuming. But you will also see a man who wants to make everyone around him comfortable and happy. You may not be wearing a ballcap (I’m more of a fedora man these days) but you’ll end up with a go-cup and a laugh and a fair share of stories. Walsh’s inherent love of people is clear whether in the classroom, at a workshop or in a dive bar in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, or wherever you happen to find yourself with him. This love is deeply embedded in every level of The Big Door Prize.
The Big Door Prize is a novel about a small town but also a novel about big ideas. In a world where we are asking with more and more sincerity, “What’s the worst that can happen?” The Big Door Prize poses the question: “What’s the best that could happen?” It is set in a small Louisiana town named Deerfield, that was “so simple it is named for what you might see and where you might see This is a book that shows how magic small towns are and how close they come to being stuck in the mud or disappearing altogether. The Big Door Prize is about a lot of things. It is about the importance of stories, the stories we read about ourselves, about what we’re supposed to be. And how we respond to these stories, our potential, in this crazy world.
The story starts with a machine that, for the low price of two dollars, prints out a ticket that lists your calling, your “potential,” whether that’s a profession or a hobby or a career or a life goal. With every chapter, Walsh alternates the point-of-view characters, and the reader sees how each person deals with the news/unleashing of this potential, from the mayor to the pastor to a high school student whose twin brother has died in an accident. Each of these characters lives with the ceilings of a small town: the familiarity of everyone always already having known each other, “knowing” the roles they’re supposed to play; everyone thinks they know and love you before you even know and love yourself. Each ticket acts as a sort of “Get Out of Jail” free card that allows the characters an opportunity to escape the box they were born in.
Douglas, one of the main characters, is a teacher at the local high school. His passion is to play trombone, and he is wholly in love with his wife, Cherilyn. Cherilyn introduces Douglas to this machine as she starts making requests for eggplant to cook different dishes he has never heard of. Douglas is confused by these requests, and deals with the skepticism of a machine printing your potential on a small blue ticket, with the fear that his dreamlife is not Cherilyn’s dreamlife, or that he has already lived a perfect life, and that he should stop dreaming at all. Douglas is worried, wondering if “for the first time in their lives together, he may need to pretend to be happy about something that he wasn’t happy about, that he might have to act like someone else in front of her instead of just being himself.”
The book deals with the theme of how one sees oneself, and how the world sees each of us, such as the chapters from the perspective of characters that are both close to and farther away from the mayor-turned-cowboy. This shows humor from afar, but as we see the mayor from a closer perspective (such as the characters who follow his son), he (and the pain that manifested this cartoon-character cowboy) becomes fully fleshed out.
Readers will enjoy the technical aspects of Walsh’s writings, such as the beauty of the novel’s transitions, as one character’s chapter ends where another’s chapter begins, watching how different characters view the same moments differently. Walsh also seamlessly transitions from laughter to depression, capturing, for example, the tragic thoughts of Jacob, a manically depressed teenager who wonders so many what-ifs that could never be printed out on a ticket. He wonders if he and his twin were “supposedly bonded more tightly together than anyone else, almost the same person biologically. Had he abandoned his brother?” And this thought rings so true, as the fear of the unknown eats away at him, it’s clear why so many people put their dollars into the machine and why Jacob can’t imagine a world where he would.
Walsh weaves in that tragedy and yet comes back to the love, to the smiles, that keep this world, and ours, worth its turn. And you know The Big Door Prize is a well-built world, a well-built town, when there are jokes and humor deftly embedded into the novel. When the three guys at the bar say, “Hey, have you heard the one about us?” you get why it’s funny, and you laugh along with them like you were there the whole time.
You can feel the fun Walsh is having with the novel, exploring each character’s world within this small town. But in none of these moments does he laugh at the characters. In none of these moments does he look down on them or play them for cheap laughs. Walsh loves these characters; he fights with and for them. You could easily see Walsh drinking in the bar with them, laughing at how they deal with the magic and the morbidity of this world, with the treasures and the trauma. You could see him joking about the eggplant alongside Douglas and Cherilyn, or about the machine being an alien artifact that will eventually drop all of our calls. It’s obvious that Walsh feels at home in this place he spent years working and writing and thinking on, years of saying jokes to these characters, hearing how they respond, seeing how they intermingle, how they experience the brink of depression or madness. Walsh creates a world that lives inside his head and shares it with us like a teacher cultivating an atmosphere in a classroom for his students and himself. He invites us all on the ride to enjoy with a drink and maybe an old record on in the background. The Big Door Prize is a world of laughs and cries but a world with love all the same, and how nice it is to be able to visit that world again and again, even if only within the confines of a book.