After reading a series of crime novels, I was in the mood for something lighter, and so I turned to the delightfully unusual premise of M.O. Walsh’s novel, The Big Door Prize.
The novel is set in the small town of Deerfield. Louisiana. Nothing much ever happens here and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. One day a machine which resembles a photo booth appears inside a local shop. You simply step inside, draw the curtain, use a q-tip for a cheek swab and then the machine spews out the results of “your potential in life, what your body and mind are capable of doing based on the science of DNA.” Soon all the residents of Deerfield are either using the machine or talking about it. There’s a disclaimer: “the company DNAMIX, is not liable for any stress your new potential may cause.”
It’s easy to see that the results from the machine could have far-reaching consequences, and that’s exactly what happens. How will people react to the results? Each generation has its own unique method of going-off-the-rails, but middle-age regrets, which are mainly the emphasis here, are arguably the most fascinating.
When the novel opens, teacher Douglas Hubbard has decided (without the machine’s help) that his fortieth birthday gift to himself should be a trombone. The purchase sparks fantasies which spin out into the future even before he tries to play it. He’s so absorbed in these flights of fantasy that he doesn’t realise that his wife, Cherilyn, is preoccupied with the results of the DNAMIX machine.
Use of the machine has a range of results: one woman decides to dump her job as a principal and launch into a career as a carpenter–the fact she”s never held a saw or a hammer in her life is not an impediment:
“Just one question, Pat,” he said. “Do you know anything at all in the big beeping fleeping world about carpentry?
Pat reached into either her breast or pants pocket and pulled out a pair of goggles. She held them up in the air like evidence. “I bought these over at the Rockery Ace yesterday,” she said. “So, I know about safety.”
Possibly the funniest sections of the book concern Cherilyn’s new identification as “royalty” (yes thanks to the machine) but for some reason this makes her turn away from various crafts and to internet sex.
What was her true calling? Making birdhouses out of Popsicle sticks? Crocheting Christmas stocking? What great places had she stamped on her passport? An entire life in Deerfield? Is that what she was meant for? Why not something bigger? Something grand? Wasn’t she about to turn forty as well?
Through a handful of characters, we see the consequences of the DNAMIX machine; the results make people discontent, take chances, take risks, and throw over their entire lives. The novel, while amusing, bogged down with a subplot that detracts from the story, and for this reader the tale floated on the surface of life while missing the opportunity for deeper observations. Perhaps I would have liked people to go a little crazier.