Wrestling with Reality in “The Big Door Prize”

Why would you think there’s another life for you, perhaps another possibility inside of you already, when the walk that you take each dawn is so lovely and safe?” Such is the question that opens M.O. Walsh’s The Big Door Prize and the floodgates to the desire “to be important to the world and a major part of it.” It’s a desire that can have one rush away from life’s engulfing challenges and toward loftier grounds, where they lose sight of reality.

The Big Door Prize frames its narrative around the Southern Louisiana town of Deerfield, “where the rocking chairs gently set on friendly porches look fit for rocking gently the friendly people who own them.” People there are eager to just go through the motions of life and not venture off the beaten path. They seem to be loath to tempt fate, such as trombone enthusiast Douglas Hubbard, chafing under the monotony of his job as a history teacher.

An opportunity to seek greater fortunes beyond fate’s boundaries, however, presents itself ahead of Deerfield’s bicentennial festival. Enter DNAMIX, a machine in the town’s grocery store that promises to tell one their potential in life, what their body and mind can do, handing folks readouts of their life potentials that run the gamut of carpenter, baseball pitcher, ballerina, and puppeteer. This replaces the mundane reality of Deerfield with an eclectic one made up of discrete, quirky fantasies.

By revealing the impatience folks bear towards reality, Walsh underscores how eager people are to rush to comforting conclusions, however far-fetched they may be. Cherilyn Hubbard wishes to see more of and be seen by the world, a desire reinforced by her DNAMIX readout identifying her as royalty, as someone whose true calling isn’t “making birdhouses out of Popsicle sticks [or] crocheting Christmas stockings.” Douglas’ music tutor, Geoffrey Mallow, tires of moving “from one little shithole apartment to another” and contemplates settling down as a magician after receiving his own readout.

Putting distance between themselves and a mundane existence also translates to distance between themselves and their loved ones. Cherilyn’s obsession with her royalty readout causes Douglas to “feel that his greatness was something he needed to prove,” a feeling of missed opportunities made more tangible when the opportunistic photographer Deuce Newman makes advances on Cherilyn. Hank Richieu — the town’s mayor-turned-cowboy — becomes detached from his municipal duties and his surviving son Jacob. Hank focuses on his Wild West fantasies, paying no attention to Jacob being tormented and dragged into sadistic schemes by his late brother’s girlfriend Trina.The Big Door Prize reinforces how self-aggrandizement can push others out of the picture to the point where old bonds can be strained and support networks shattered.

It’s at this (breaking) point that the characters begin rebuilding themselves — understanding why their pre-DNAMIX selves came to be in the first place. Father Pete, doubting his faith in himself with regards to helping his niece Trina, has his self-esteem reestablished following a DNAMIX session and sets out to help Trina, even if it means getting beaten up by drug addicts along the way. By driving his characters toward virtuous action rather than away from it, Walsh highlights how new leases on (the old) life are feasible if one allows themselves to address real-life challenges rather than sugarcoating or running away from them.

Like the process of self-reflection and reconciliation, however, the novel can be prone to taking its time exploring inner lives with lengthy bouts of stream-of-consciousness and backstory details. From Jacob’s musings about how his brother’s death left a mark on him and Trina, to the rambling confessions made to Father Pete in light of the DNAMIX craze, The Big Door Prize’s prose can mirror the stalling, rationalizing, and sense-making that the characters indulge in while wrestling with reality. It could be said that such pacing hiccups are Walsh’s way of showing how one eludes their darker selves by venting insecurities onto others, as in Trina’s case with Jacob.

As with Deerfield’s inhabitants, The Big Door Prize makes no qualms about showing off far-out — and far-fetched — qualities that stem from concocting fantasies around oneself and separate from reality. At the same time, the novel never loses sight of the human element. Walsh leverages it to highlight “the way that people are so quick to think without knowing, to assume without understanding,” causing them to rush to idealistic conclusions — and further away from life as-is — rather than trying to self-actualize within fate’s boundaries. Like Working It Off in Labor County and A Confederacy of Dunces, there’s more to the surface of The Big Door Prize than big laughs and bigger egos, with the characters striving to find their earthly purpose. But that requires looking past the belief that “the world had no context but themselves” and giving reality — and one’s genuine self — a second chance.

The Big Door Prize
By M.O. Walsh
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Published September 8, 2020
Paperback August 31, 2021