Daniel Wallace

"The Watermelon King"

(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel MAY 15, 2003)

“The town was just up the hill, but it looked far away now. Through the high weeds I could see what was left of an old sign, once painted bright red and green and black but now weathered and pale and leaning to one side. It said WELCOME TO ASHLAND, WATERMELON CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!’

“So” I said. “Tell me again?”

“Tell you what?”

“Why I’m doing this.” My mouth was dry, and in my head I could hear my heart beating.

“Because it’s what a man does,” she said. He goes on a journey.”

Tom Rider is a nineteen year old man on a journey. He has returned to Ashland, Alabama to try and answer the many questions he has about his parents. On the day Tom was born, his mother, Lucy, died in Ashland. Lucy’s best friend, Anna, took the infant Tom to Birmingham to be raised by Lucy’s father, Edmund.

Read excerptWhen Tom arrives in Ashland, he finds a little town in disrepair. Ashland, the watermelon capital of the world, has lost the touch when it comes to growing watermelons. Their annual watermelon festival has been cancelled indefinitely, and there seems to be a general feeling of malaise among the folks in town. Tom’s in search of answers.

Part I of the novel is told by the viewpoint of the members of Ashland’s tight knit community. The quirky characters are dictating the memories they have of Lucy Rider’s arrival in Ashland, and her impact on the town and it’s people. We learn that Lucy was a beautiful young woman who arrived in Ashland to inspect some of her father’s rental properties, giving her something to do during the summer after her mother died. The property her father owned had fallen into disrepair, so she decided she would stay and fix the place up, with the help of some of the people in town. Having no money, she bartered her talent at making delicious lunches, for carpentry and other work needed to be done on the house. While Lucy came to Ashland as an outsider, she quickly became an important part of the community. Most people looked forward to seeing her about town. She started tutoring a young man, Iggy Winslow, who was the town idiot, frankly speaking.

As the town grew to love Lucy, and accept her into their community, they were also getting ready for their annual watermelon festival, their pride and joy. Everyone gathered to help make this annual event a huge success year after year. As Lucy found out more and more about the strange traditions and rituals that surrounded the town’s festival, she rebelled against it. In the townspeople’s opinions, Lucy’s actions became the eventual demise of the festival and was the undoing of their town. As Al Speegle, town pharmacist and committee member of the Watermelon Festival, proclaimed “We had been robbed of our Great Distinction. The Watermelon King was a symbol of everything we had always been, and without him, we were nothing.”

Part II of this novel is the story of Tom’s life growing up in Birmingham, AL, with his grandfather Edmund, and Anna. Edmund was a real estate broker in Alabama, prone to telling tall tales. Actually, that’s all Edmund could ever tell -- he seemed incapable of telling the flat out truth -- he just compulsively needed to exaggerate the truth into something larger than life. Tom had understandably had questions about his birth and his parents, but Edmund could never seem to give him the facts.

“Okay. Seriously. Regarding the origin of you. Zeus came down to earth disguised as a cow. He just appeared one day out in the field. It happens more often than you’d like to think. Once, he came down to speak with your grandmother -- needed her advice. On this occasion, your mother was there, helping out with the cows. And Zeus, well, you know how it happens. He seduced her behind the barn.”

The tall tales served Tom well when he was a youngster, but as he got older, the stories Edmund told him only grew to frustrate him and make him angry. Edmund passed away, and Tom still had no real knowledge of his parents, or how he came to be. Thus, his need to go to Ashland.

Part III is the story of Tom’s visit in Ashland and what transpired nineteen years after his mom died and he was whisked away to Birmingham. It tells the story of how the town has convinced themselves that Tom is the “prodigal son” come back to return life back to them.

I found this novel at times incredibly sad, and at others, incredibly funny. The characters in this fictionalized town are a hoot. It is essentially a tale of a young man’s search for answers, and we get to go on that journey as he comes to realize the impact his parents had on the community. This is a fairly short novel, at 226 pages, but it’s impact is well thought out. By the end, I came to realize that Wallace was writing a parable of sorts, and I found the lesson, “Stand up for yourself and the people you care about” told in a fresh and unique way. This is one of those books which is perfect for a sunny, lazy afternoon in a hammock.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Watermelon King

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About the Author:

Daniel Wallace, photo by Neil GiordanoDaniel Wallace is the author of three critically acclaimed novels. His novel Big Fish has been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese. It is also currently in production as a movied directed by Tim Burton, and starring Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Jessica Lange, and many others, which will release in 2003. Wallace's fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Glimmer Train, Story, Prairie Schooner, and The Massachusetts Review. He is also an illustrator whose work has appeared on T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and greeting cards across the country.

Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, he now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his wife and son.

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