A few years ago I had a gig screening manuscripts for a novel competition. My task was to review between 100 and 150 of these manuscripts and winnow them down to one or two finalists that I could then pass on to the final judge. It was a pleasure to be asked–I felt sure I would pull an unrecognized gem out of the slush. But I hadn’t really known what I was in for. Fifty-pound UPS boxes began landing on my porch. I cracked the boxes open, pulled out three or four manuscripts at a time. Many of them were just flat-out boring. Some were shot through with gaps of character and plot logic even in their first chapters. Others were not-in-a-good-way strange: one was called Whimsy Ocean, and the pale towers of stacked manuscripts began to resemble just that (an ocean I wasn’t too eager to wade into). There were qualities I admired about many of them but at the same time, none had spoken with the resonance and and sense of inevitability that I’d been looking for.
I picked another manuscript off the pile, reading eyes strained, ring of lukewarm coffee at the bottom of the mug. And read these words:
I still patrol Karst Park, days, a gun on my belt and a diet soda in my cup holder. But on Saturday nights I work the rink calling roller derby, trying to match my crackling new radio voice to the beat of the bout. I do a creditable job of it, too, for the sake of these hometown girls who may never reach stardom in any wider arena, if not for the benefit of my mom, who shows up regularly with her cane and earpiece to watch her favorites get knocked into the wall. I do it for my sister Sharee who died in the seventies and who cruised this same track backwards under the disco ball, insisting on taking the male role in the couples skate, her narrow hips swerving like a rudder under some boy’s sweaty class ring. When I think of her now, the long red hair parted in the back with her own motion and streaming forward into her face, I wonder if it was courage or fear that made Sharee proceed this way, backward into her destiny. I wonder if I am taking the same route, childless and divorced, veering into the midpoint of my forties, still rushing backward, raising my own wind. I look down at the rink and nod at the girls in their camouflage team shirts, their bright hard helmets, and their skimpy skirts. The youngest is eighteen, the oldest thirty-seven, and they shimmer with sex and suppressed aggression. They are students and mothers, nurses and teachers, war vets and veterinarian’s assistants, policewomen, waitresses, insurance claims adjusters, and clerks. They have spent the week cleaning up blood, submitting data, and disposing of shit, all to the music of canned motivation and various forms of bad news. I take a long sip of clear soda and prepare for the onslaught.
Though I didn’t know it at the time–the submissions were anonymous–this was the first paragraph of a novel by Trudy Lewis, a professor at the University of Missouri. All I knew was that I was instantly compelled by the voice–the intelligence and poise and wryness of it, the notes of sorrow underneath. That image of Sharee skating “backwards into her destiny” brought that Nabokovian chill at the base of the spine, and I felt the hair on my arms standing up. Here was something. I was sitting up in my chair, suddenly compelled by the sorcery of the right words in the right place on the page. I read The Empire Rolls straight through, with a deep sympathy for its protagonist, Sally LaChance, as she negotiates her way through midlife in a Midwestern town. It was a book that felt local and specific but never small, asking the big questions about ethics and community, our role in the world, the continuing encroachment of private interest onto the commons–while anchored in Sally’s laid-back but cutting, quietly moving voice.
A few years later, it’s a huge pleasure to see Trudy’s book being published by Moon City Press in their Missouri Authors series, and we’re thrilled to be able to host her here at Central Library for an election-night celebration of all that’s good in America, Roller Derby Night. We’ll have Girl Fawkes, Cruella Belle-Ville, Danisaurus Rex, and Party Foul of the Arch Rival Roller Girls on hand to show video clips of their team in action and talk about the culture of roller derby. Trudy will read from and sign copies of her novel, courtesy of Left Bank Books. Please join us to celebrate the publication of this remarkable work of fiction on November 4th–it’s going to be a lot of fun and you’ll get to meet one of the best (and coolest) writers in the state.