In The Big Door Prize, a new machine at a small-town Louisiana grocery store adds excitement to bicentennial preparations. After customers submit a mouth swab sample, DNAMIX provides each person with a printout of his or her true potential, or “Life Station.” What’s the worst that could possibly happen? Better yet, what’s the best?
Using John Prine song lyrics as chapter titles, the novel explores idioms, preconceptions and other cultural deposits through the stories of a homemaker, a teacher, a student, a musician and scores of other citizens who try on who they “really” are. Doug and Cherilyn appear to be the ideal couple, but Cherilyn struggles with odd symptoms behind Doug’s back, and Doug’s trombone-playing aspirations get in the way of his history teaching. Jacob’s twin brother, Toby, has recently died, and when Toby’s girlfriend starts giving Jacob undue attention, he begins to question how similar or different he is from his twin. Father Pete, a chaplain at Jacob’s Catholic school, is expected to be a font of wisdom, but he’s mostly interested in listening—really listening. This cast of characters has a chance to be anyone, but can they be themselves?
The promises supplied by DNAMIX parallel the marketing-manufactured allure of online life, but ultimately, The Big Door Prize celebrates unlikely heroes, like Tipsy, the drunkard who takes up driving as a way to abstain, and Doug’s trombone teacher, who brings to mind the famous bassist Victor Wooten in his almost magical pedagogy and thrilling sounds. Over the course of the novel, these characters become genuine role models who contrast with the personalities celebrated by social media.
More than solving societal ills, The Big Door Prize calls attention to the ordinary, hard-won joys of real people. M.O. Walsh’s second novel is a feel-good read in a down-home setting, with serious undertones.