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the starlite drive-in

13 october 2013

I read Marjorie Reynolds's Civil Wars of Jonah Moran eight years ago, and I've had it in mind ever since to read another of her books. I get around to everything, eventually.

The Starlite Drive-In, published two years before Jonah Moran, is an incisive and intricately-told coming-of-age novel. It is told in retrospect by a woman named Callie Anne Benton. At the age of 49, she learns that some long-buried bones have come to light in the field where her father used to run a drive-in movie. Flashback to the summer of '56, where we'll stay for all but the balance of the novel.

In 1956, Callie Anne is the teenage only child of a marriage in an advanced state of dysfunction. Her father manages a drive-in movie show; her mother hasn't left their home (on the drive-in's grounds) in years. When her father becomes partly disabled after an accident, the drive-in's owner hires a handyman. And when Charlie Memphis gets to the Starlite, everyone's troubles begin.

Callie Anne is caught in a classic triangle, each side of which seems to open onto a new triangle. Memphis becomes her mother's lover, with her abusive, frustrated father on the hypotenuse. Meanwhile, Callie is at another hypotenuse, crushing on Memphis while envying her mother. And Callie herself has a younger boyfriend, and a rival for his affections. This could go on for a while, but Reynolds knows how to keep the action focused.

So who's buried in the field? Callie Anne's aunt reminds her that more than one person went missing in that long-ago summer. And we do get some red herrings laid across the trail. But the novel takes a decisive turn out of twistiness, about four-fifths of the way through, and we subside into a gentler story of family breakup and reconciliation: though it's a reconciliation literally built on the foundations of a terrible crime.

Till that point, The Starlite Drive-In is a taut, superbly told, obliquely observed novel, a young-adult avatar of What Maisie Knew set in the car-culture American Midwest. I'd get more books by Marjorie Reynolds, but there aren't any, unless you count a small-press mystery novel she co-wrote this past year. Well, maybe I'll have to get that one, too.

Reynolds, Marjorie. The Starlite Drive-In. New York: Morrow, 1997.