Ray in Reverse by Daniel Wallace

Algonquin Books 2000 225 pp. 21.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Ray Williams manages a men's apparel store and owns an elaborate collection of buttons. Not promising material for a fictional protagonist, but the interest in this stories lies not so much in who he is as how his story is told. Backwards.

Daniel Wallace's Ray in Reverse opens in heaven, where fifty-year-old Ray reawakens after succumbing to cancer. He's delighted to find himself in the Last Words section of paradise, where he, along with New Yorker Stella Kauffman and others, try their best to win others' praise and envy at their last words. Stella's background is unusual, as "New York City is so poorly represented in Heaven that some of us had forgotten it exists." As expected, Stella doesn't do so well with her peers.

Subsequent chapters move backwards, from Ray's last days in Spring 1999 to Summer 1960, where we find ten-year-old Ray mesmerized by the thought that his neighbor Mrs. Branscobe's glass eye may be hereditary, as he was told.

As we all know, if you play a country music song backwards, you get back, in descending order of importance, your dog, your truck, and your wife. Similarly, Ray in Reverse presents us with seemingly insignificant events, but we understand their powerful meaning for Ray only after learning what has come before. While the reader might expect each chapter to be linked causally to the previous ones, the links are not so much narrative as associative. Those associations can be powerful, however.

Like Merlin in T. H. White's The Once and Future King , we know that an event is significant, but we don't know why. For example, Ray finds himself at the home of Peter Boylan, the Peter Boylan, the most famous artist in America. Peter has heard of Ray's button collection, and Ray has a small box full of Phillip Hartley-designed buttons, one of which will replace a lost button from Boylan's grandfather's sweater, to which he is sentimentally attached. As Ray attempts to sew on the button, he pricks his finger, and the blood seeping from it, and Boylan's response to the blood, will only become noteworthy when we learn what had happened to Ray years earlier.

Ray is a flawed man who lives an ordinary life. He harbors secrets and lusts. His wife, Jennifer, seems to know him better than he would like. Listening to his heart, she observes that "'some sound like little drums. Some sound like machinery. Some not like human hearts at all, but more like the heart of some small animal. Yours,' she said, and stopped, and lifted her head, thinking hard. 'Yours sounds like that place at the end of a record when the needle won't lift.'"

Ray in Reverse is not the first story to be told backward, and indeed, the shadow of Martin Amis' spectacular Time's Arrow seems to hang over every page of this book. However, while Amis' fierce intellectualism went shooting for the big narrative game, namely the meaning of the Holocaust, Wallace, whose previous novel is the comic Big Fish, is telling a smaller story with more modest stakes. Wallace is interested in the emotional significance of a series of seemingly disconnected events, linked only by the fact that they happened to the same man.

Andre Malraux once said that death changes life into destiny. Ray in Reverse is a quiet, quirky, charming exploration of the meaning of that phrase.