Reviewed by Matthew Simmons
One of the great frustrations of being a young person in a small town is how incredibly boring it seems. Everything that happens seems to happen somewhere else, and wanderlust is an oppressive feeling, something inescapable, omnipresent, and, importantly, your greatest desire in the world. This is true everywhere, it seems, but perhaps acutely so in the small-town South. In that world—the world that produced me—the regular feelings are exacerbated by economic depression, long-gone industry, and the notion that the ghosts of ancestors are hanging about, wanting things to be like they always have been, with no respect for change, progress, or what the new generation might need and want.
Daniel Wallace’s new novel, The Kings and Queens of Roam, is not specifically in the South, nor specifically anywhere else other than “America,” but I couldn’t help but think of my own small-town North Carolina upbringing while reading it, for perhaps two reasons: Roam, the titular location (and in some ways protagonist) of the novel, is a small town, like mine, built on the textile industry. But beyond that surface-level similarity, Roam is a town that is nearly dead, but that, by the novel’s end, shows signs of possibly living once again.
That’s what Wallace has done with this novel, then: written a tale that narrates the death and life of a small town, of the world and forces that evolve to both birth the town and kill it, a tale that announces the town’s afterlife and shows the town’s ghosts as an inseparable part of the present and future. If Roam is to have life, it must have after-life, and after-life must be built on memory and an honest assessment of the past. And how we do that, and the ways in which we make mistakes in doing that, and the second chances we get at doing that, are what this truly beautiful novel wants us to think through.
Unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with Wallace’s most famous work, Big Fish, this novel teaches us that understanding the place we’re from involves story-telling. But whereas that earlier novel explored how stories hold families together, Roam looks at how stories form the essential, most basic fabric of how communities are held together. Stories are power in Wallace’s world. The stories we tell are, in some ways, the most real version of anything; thus, the telling of them needs and demands the greatest of judiciousness and discretion. In this, I am also reminded how my grandmother always used “story” as a euphemism for “lie”; Wallace seems deeply aware of how closely paired these two things always are, and lies, in his world, are just as powerful as stories. But whereas stories build, lies destroy.
The novel is the story of the town of Roam. Elijah McCallister, a wanderer, finds himself in China at some unclear point in the past. A chance encounter with a street vendor introduces Elijah to silk. Immediately obsessed with this fabric, he abducts Ming Kai, the street vendor, and brings him back to America. The two enter into an uneasy alliance: Ming Kai will teach Elijah the secret to making silk only if Elijah promises to retrieve his family from China. Elijah agrees, but needing to know that Ming Kai has told him the truth, the actual secret to making silk, he must see the silk first. And so, they set out on a long journey across America in search of the mulberry trees the silkworms need to produce the fabric. When they finally find a mulberry grove, they together build the town of Roam and its silk factory. Elijah is led by a story, a notion he read in a book once: “Blaze a trail into oblivion and create your own paradise.” Ming Kai, however, knows the counter-truth of another story, that “no flower grows in a poisoned field” and that Elijah’s avarice and the violent beginnings of their relationship will always haunt the town.
These two narratives remain parallel, and hang over the novel. As Wallace effortlessly jumps back and forth between the past and present, we spend most of our time with descendants of Elijah and Ming Kai, now living in a town that is dying, rotting, and falling apart. The central plot of the novel revolves around Elijah’s great-granddaughters, the horribly ugly and bitter Helen, and the naïve, painfully beautiful, and blind Rachel. After their parents’ death, Helen cares for Rachel, and out of spite and jealously tells Rachel hurtful lies that build Rachel’s world both inside and beyond Roam. Rachel one day ventures out on her own, unwittingly testing Elijah’s story against that of Ming Kai; the aftermath of Rachel’s adventure forms the novel’s main action.
Lies, stories, and how we misinterpret one as the other—such is The Kings and Queens of Roam. But the novel works in a way more complex than the narrative I’ve briefly mentioned, in a fabulously effortless, unpretentious, and honestly magical way. The parallelism and doubling extend out to a diverse and moving assembly of characters and places, each with its own sets of lies and stories, each with its own chances for interpretation and misinterpretation. Thus, we can summarize The Kings and Queens of Roam as being a novel about stories, and lies, the people who tell them, and the places they build in the telling of them. And as we see these things play out, Wallace asks us to think about how stories and lies can be reinterpreted in the pursuit of redemption, about second chances, about bringing life back to people and places that were dead. As mentioned, the novel is technically and structurally dependent on doubling and parallelism, which allow Wallace to melt the past into the present and vice-versa, expanding the possibilities for redemption and recreation.
Let none of my prolixity or constant goings-on about stories and lies mislead you into thinking Wallace has written some tediously philosophical novel. While it asks us to consider important things and their complex ramifications, The Kings and Queens of Roam is, like all good literature, moving, beautiful, entertaining, and human. Its thoughtful complexity does nothing to spoil its readability and adventure. It is a novel that will make you cry and laugh, that leaves you with unforgettable scenes, that asks you to rethink your relationship with other people. It is a novel that brings you back to your hometown, to your own history and origins and your relationship to them—and it asks you to reconsider that relationship.
Appropriately enough, I went back to Whiteville, North Carolina, shortly after finishing The Kings and Queens of Roam. I felt the ghosts, and I remembered all the lies I believed about the town as a young man. And then, I decided I would tell only stories, and not lies, about it. Suddenly, it felt like home again.