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Imagine Romeo and Juliet set in 1960s Florida, only this time the heads of the Montague and Capulet families are, respectively, the owner of America's largest drive-in movie theater and the proprietor of the town funeral parlor. Imagine, too, that Romeo is a Korean adoptee who is deflowered by the drive-in concession-stand girl before his first tryst with his Juliet. These are the basic ingredients of Larry Baker's ambitious and original first novel, The Flamingo Rising, which combines a Flannery O'Connor-esque preoccupation with religious faith with the chatty narrative ease of Eudora Welty. The result is an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking tale that delivers a wholly original take on the classic bildungsroman.
Despite some similarities, The Flamingo Rising departs radically from the typical coming-of-age story. For one thing, Abe, our protagonist and narrator, is Korean; he and his gorgeous sister, Louise, are adopted as infants when their American father, Hubert Lee, is in Korea during the war and decides, impulsively, to bring two babies back to his wife in Florida. For another, Baker chooses to have Abe tell the narrative in flashback. Although we can glean that Abe the adult has not only survived the trials and tragedies of his adolescence, but thrived (thanks to his family inheritance, he is a rich man, happily married to Grace, his Juliet, and the father of three sons), it is also true that the novel ends on Abe's 16th birthday, with the occurrence of an unexpected and devastating tragedy. Abe keeps secret the inadvertent yet fatal mistake he made that has led to this tragedy; it is known only to him and his trusted friend and coworker, Alice Kite. Thus, despite previous declarations of the grown Abe's happiness, we are not at all sure by the end of the novel that we are leaving his 16-year-old self safely on the cusp of adulthood. In between the closing events of the novel and the present moment from which Abe narrates -- reminiscing as a fulfilled husband and father -- lies the mystery of Abe's forgiveness both of himself and of his father (a process that could perhaps make for a fascinating second novel).
Hubert Thomas Lee, Abe's father, is a larger-than-life, eccentric visionary, and also one of Baker's best characters. Hailing from a wealthy tobacco family in Winston-Salem, the charismatic Lee is alternately magnanimous and petty, grandiose and heartbreakingly vulnerable. It is his idea to build the world's largest drive-in theater and call it the Flamingo, his idea to use pioneering means of advertising and marketing that make his theater the most popular in the state. Lee's unexplainable but instant hatred for Turner West, the somber but peaceful proprietor of a neighboring funeral home, causes terrible problems for young Abe, who has fallen hopelessly, irretrievably in love with West's daughter, Grace. Matters are complicated further when it soon becomes obvious to everyone -- everyone, that is, except Hubert Thomas Lee -- that Mr. West has fallen in love with his beloved wife, Edna Scott Lee, although his affections are never, at least physically, returned.
Dancing around the periphery of these events are a cast of characters that are no less vivid despite playing smaller roles. There is Louise, Abe's beautiful sister, whose talents will propel her far away from this small town, and Polly Jackson, the voluptuous concession-stand worker whose thunder is inadvertently stolen by Alice, Abe's oldest friend and coworker. There is Pete Maws, a tiny black man who arrives on the Lees' doorstep as if by providence and becomes an integral part of their life and business, and Judge Harry Lester, a nervous man whose only grace occurs in the air, when he is flying his Piper, trailing the advertising banners that will make the Flamingo the sensation of the state. Finally, there is Frank, Louise's beloved dog, who, like Mr. Lee, is cursed with age-old angers and enmities that cause him to rise up and injure those he loves most.
Tragedy occurs in the novel, yes, but it is tempered by moments of genuine hilarity. Witness the description of the evening of one of the elder Lee's great marketing ploys -- the evening he joins forces with one Saul Mixon, "The P.T. Barnum of the Sexual Revolution," the man who created three separate documentaries about childbirth. "Birth" is the Flamingo's first film of 1968:
"Birth" was an hour and a half, but it was not until the last fifteen minutes that you actually got your money's worth.... A real pregnant woman...was wheeled into the delivery room, and then, on the largest theater screen in the world, the audience was put where the doctor was -- right between her legs looking directly at "Birth".... Water broke and poured towards the Flamingo playground. And then from the cradle of civilization came a head, a round bulge that pushed against a reluctant opening...and then, as if on a coiled spring, the whole body popped out, splotchy and still attached to a cord of life that was trailing back to Mesopotamia.... That should have been enough to see, but Saul Mixon had more. Why shouldn't future obstetricians see the afterbirth? We heard that groan pouring out of the four hundred parked cars.... It was a masculine groan, but the worst was not over for any of the males on the lot that night.... Between a rubber-gloved thumb and forefinger, a tiny wad of baby flesh was stretched, and then what looked like a medieval corkscrew was placed on the tip, and with a decisive twist the baby flesh became circumcised boy flesh.... Even the women were quiet. But for all the men, after an hour and a half of pizza and Cokes and hot dogs and hamburgers and meatball sandwiches and french fries and pickles and chocolate -- it was too much. Dozens of male heads leaned out of windows. Some were able to get to a toilet, sometimes having to lean on their wife's arm....Casualties were all over the field.
Baker ends the novel with an enormous conflagration, what we are perhaps meant to see as a purifying fire, one that will allow the members of the Lee family to start all over from scratch. But is there any such thing? Abe's purported happiness seems a little too easily earned. Fires, we know, may consume, but they also leave ashes. Just before the final conflagration, Abe makes a decision that some would interpret as pure cruelty, that others may interpret as showing that he has finally reached adulthood. With this ambiguous ending, as with the previous 300 pages, Baker shows himself an inspired chronicler of a complex, unforgettable family.