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.