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The Speed Queen

The Speed Queen

4.0 2
by Stewart O'Nan

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May 1997

Marjorie Standiford is spending her last night on Oklahoma's Death Row, slated to be the second woman executed in recent Oklahoma history, for her role as one of the Sonic Killers. It wasn't as organized as the name makes it sound; Marjorie and her husband Lamont, and her lover Natalie, took an all-too fast path from mainlining speed, to dealing, to


May 1997

Marjorie Standiford is spending her last night on Oklahoma's Death Row, slated to be the second woman executed in recent Oklahoma history, for her role as one of the Sonic Killers. It wasn't as organized as the name makes it sound; Marjorie and her husband Lamont, and her lover Natalie, took an all-too fast path from mainlining speed, to dealing, to robbery, to murder.

Marjorie spends her last few hours speaking into a tape recorder, unravelling her answers to a list of questions provided to her by the writer who wants to create a novel based on her experiences. And who better to reveal the truth behind the lurid headlines than America's most popular writer, the king of horror fiction? Marjorie hopes that this novel might help counter the lies throughout Natalie's own bestseller. But as she speaks, we realize that the truth, despite the hours of evidence, may still be somewhat obscured.

Marjorie's haunting voice, described by Publishers Weekly as "as stark and hypnotic as a midnight talk-radio host," weaves a story of youthful aimlessness, an unlocatable despair and, above all, an obsession with speed -- from revved-up big engine American cars to drug-induced frenzies -- all against a backdrop of the purest, but darkest, middle American culture, built of neon signs, drive-in fast food joints, and endless highways.

And right up to the end, there is Marjorie's injunction to the writer she hopes will make her immortal: "Just tell a good story."

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Is he really one of the country's best young novelists, as Granta claims? Find out with this story of a woman on Death Row who aims to set the record straight by writing a book.
Kirkus Reviews
Granta hotshot O'Nan (The Names of the Dead, 1996, etc.) gives us his variation on In Cold Blood, new and improved, for those who never read the original.

On death row in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, on the very night of her execution, Marjorie Standiford is busy with her tape recorder. Last-minute appeal? Last Will and Testament? A farewell letter? No, nothing like that. Marjorie is making notes for Stephen King, who has decided to write a book about her. Apparently Marjorie is a very hot ticket: Natalie, her partner in crime, has already published a bestseller about the twosome's life on the road as bandits and serial killers. But Marjorie has become a Christian since her arrest, you see, and is now worried about her image. "Sometimes in your books you make fun of religious people. You make them crazy or evil, like in Children of the Corn or Needful Things. I'd appreciate it if you didn't this once. Just make me the way I am." So Marjorie proceeds to tell Stephen the whole sad story, from white-trash childhood to pothead adolescence to marriage with speed-freak Lamont on to her eventual discovery of bisexuality with roommate Natalie. Eventually those three set up shop as drug dealers and are quickly successful. When they find the cash from their big haul stolen, however, they turn to outright theft, murdering an old farmer and his wife in the process. From that point on, their fate is basically sealed: They take to the road, barrelling down Route 66 to the border, knocking off a restaurant and several of its customers before getting caught. As much as Marjorie regrets all the mess, she knows it makes a great story.

Stretching the credible and highly pretentious: O'Nan's portrait of a redneck who watches Monty Python and works out book treatments on her deathbed would be merely bizarre if she were just a character. Unfortunately, she's the entire story.

Product Details

The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.77(w) x 8.55(h) x 0.81(d)

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Read an Excerpt

The first time I had sex I threw up.

This was at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, in the bed of Monty Hunt's Ford Ranger. We were watching Halloween and drinking pink Champale. We'd been going out all summer, and I was going to be a junior, so I thought it was time. We'd been close before. I'd made him beg me.

I heard it hurt, so I was two bottles ahead of Monty. He had the truck backed up on a hump with the speaker hanging over the side. It was warm but the bugs were bad, and we were under a blanket. We were kissing, getting our faces wet. I was wearing anklets with little pom-poms in the back, that was all. I'd started the night with shorts and a tube top but they were gone. In my bag I had another pair of underwear.

I opened my legs and let Monty put his hand there. I think I surprised him. He dug around down there, then got on top of me; the movie was blue on his face. The music was building up to a killing. Two speakers over sat a family in lawn chairs, eating popcorn out of a giant yellow bag.

He couldn't find his way in at first, and I had to help him. It's funny how they want it so much and them don't know what to do. I could barely feel it in me. He had his mouth open and I could see up his nose. It felt uncomfortable, almost like the beginning of cramps, and then something gave way, like when you realize you have a nosebleed. It stung, and I tipped my chin up so he couldn't see that it hurt me. The Champale wasn't working. He was pushing against my stomach; I felt like I had to go to the bathroom. Above me, upside down, Jamie Lee Curtis was riding through a graveyard with this other girl, getting stoned. Monty stopped all of a suddenand let out a hot breath right in my face and fell on top of me like he'd been stabbed. His back was sweaty, and I could feel him seeping inside of me. We didn't use anything, and I knew I was going to get pregnant.

"I love you," he said, still gasping. He didn't even say my name.

And what was I supposed to say? That I felt sick, that I wished I hadn't let him?

I said it back.

"Are you okay?" he said.

I knew there would be blood but not so much. I wiped my thighs with the blanket and folded it over.

"I'm okay," I said. "I just need to clean up."

"I've got Kleenex," he said, and reached through the back window of the cab and handed me the box. He knelt there staring at me.

"Watch the movie," I said.

I stuffed some up there, but I still felt sick, so I put on my top and my old underwear and my shorts and found my clogs. Monty wouldn't leave me alone. "I'm okay," I kept telling him. "I just need to use the bathroom." He wanted to come with me, but I finally shouted at him, and he let me go.

I jumped down from the tailgate and almost fell. My legs were shaky and my stomach was churning like a washing machine. Everything down there stung. I stumbled over the dusty mounds toward the red fluorescents outlining the snack bar. It was circular and shaped like a witches hat, the projector in the top part. You could see the movie scissoring through the air. We were in the back, like a mile away. The last hundred feet were deserted. A green light burned on each unused speaker like an eye. Halfway there, I knew I wasn't going to make it. I stopped and leaned against a speaker pole and heaved up everything I'd eaten--the Champale and the mustard fries, the nachos and the Dots--all of it splashing hot over my Dr. Scholl's. I spit to clean my mouth and kicked dust over everything and went on.

My thighs were sticky, and getting sick made me cry, so my face was a mess. I knew the bathrooms were by the front, so I walked around the outside and slipped in, hoping no one would see me.

Inside there was a line--seven or eight girls smoking, hands on hips. I stood outside in the pink glow, the movie huge behind me. The music was building again. A fat guy carrying a little kid in pajamas on his shoulders was coming. I pretended to be looking for something I dropped, then when he was even with me, I fell in beside him. The girls inside didn't even look. I walked straight past them into the men's room.

There was one guy at a urinal, but he didn't turn around. I wetted a handful of paper towels and took them to the farthest stall and locked the door. It was so filthy I didn't sit down. I threw the Kleenex in the toilet and the water went red.

As I was wiping my legs, I heard the guy getting some paper towels and the door closing.

In the mirror I looked the same, maybe a little buzzed, a little tired, but the same girl I'd been before. I didn't think I'd learned anything.

Outside, the girls in line took one look at me and ran for the men's room.

Monty was waiting back at the truck, asking the same questions.

"I'm fine," I said, and let him hold me. Now that I look back on it, he was being as sweet as he knew how, but right then I hated him.

"Marjorie," he said, real serious, like he was going to follow it with something like "I love you" or "I want to marry you."

I didn't give him the chance.

"Hey," I said, "did you leave me any of that Champale?"

That was a weird time for me, fifteen and sixteen. I think it is for most girls. The world can be so perfect, and then it can just suck. That's unnecessary language, but I've already said it; just don't have me say it in the book. People are mean or dishonest for no reason. It makes you angry, and angry with yourself for being that way sometimes.

I was weird, I know that now. I think my mom blames it on my dad dying right in front of me, but I don't think that's it. That's some of it maybe, but not all. Don't make too big a deal out of it.

I read somewhere that your dad left early, so you know how people try to pin everything on that. You know not to fall for it.

The big thing when I was fifteen is that I got a job and started drinking a lot of diet Pepsi. I was a fry man at Long John Silver's. That's what they called me--a fry man. I worked the Fry-o-lator. Actually they call them fryers there. Some other goofy stuff they had were chicken planks and hush puppies and corn cobettes, which were just frozen ears of corn snapped in half. You had to wear these ugly blue uniforms with this dorky bow at your throat; they were made of polyester and stuck to your sweat. It was boring because no one ever came in besides the dinner rush. When an order did come in, the girl at the counter said it into her microphone, and I tossed a breaded fish square into the grease. You had to jump back fast or it would get your hands. I'd fill up the metal basket with frozen fries and lower it into the grease. Everything there was frozen. We used to play broom hockey with the filets; they hurt when they hit your shins.

I wasn't really drinking then, not like every day.. I'd come in after school, and the first thing I'd do was pour myself a jumbo diet Coke. The biggest cup they had then was 44 ounces, now it's 64. I'd drink two of those before the dinner rush and I'd be flying.

In some ways it wasn't a bad job, compared to some of the ones I've had. You didn't have to do much. The manager's name was Cissy, and when there was nothing to do, she made us sweep. You'd sit down to read a magazine or something--maybe I could be reading The Stand, the original one, because it was around that time. If Cissy saw you sitting down, she'd get on the microphone and say, "Grab a broom." We'd go to the bathroom to read so much that she set a time limit on how long you could be in there. She'd come in and knock on your stall.

I liked the longer version of The Stand. I liked the original one too. Even the miniseries was good, with the guy from Forrest Gump with no legs. I thought his dog was great. It's such a great story. Do you think someday you'll put out an even longer version? You could just keep adding to it. I'd read it.

You could do the same thing with all your books, the ones people like. Not like It or The Eyes of the Dragon or The Tommyknockers, but the good ones. I could read a lot more of Salem's Lot.

Anyway, it wasn't a bad job. I could quit anytime cause I was still living with my mom. I didn't really need the money for anything. Monty always paid for everything.

One night when we were out on a date, Monty took me to Charcoal Oven. It's this old-time drive-in off Northwest Expressway with this great neon, this chef guy in a hat in six different colors. You could see it for miles. We pulled up and ordered, and Monty said to me, "What do you want to drink?"

And automatically I said, "Large diet Coke."

"Diet Pepsi okay?" the girl on the speaker says.

Monty looks at me like it might not be okay. He was like that, he wanted everything to be just right. I think he was scared that he wasn't.

"Whatever," I said.

So we cruised around to the window and Monty paid and we picked a stall and backed in so we could look at the neon. We sat there picking the pickles out of our hickory burgers and squeezing the ketchup packets onto napkins, trying not to make a mess. Monty was always worried about the carpet. He had cup holders that attached to the lip of the window, and I stuck my diet Pepsi in mine.

The first sip I took was weird because I'd been drinking diet Coke for so long. The diet Pepsi was sweeter and heavier and not as fizzy. I didn't like it at first. I must have made a face because Monty was like, "We can go around and order something else."

"It's okay," I said, not because it was, but because I was tired of him asking me. I was tired of him calling us "we." He was the wrong one, and I'd given myself to him and now I couldn't get it back. He was nice, he was fine, but I hated myself and I hated him. I hated "we." It was just bad.

So we sat there eating our hickory burgers and curly fries, watching the neon build the man in the chef's hat one pieces at a time, and little by little I felt the caffeine creeping through me, except it wasn't like the diet Coke, it didn't build to a level and spread. It just kept going. My heart was jumping so much I had to catch my breath, and a chill made me hard in my bra. It was better than anything Monty had ever done for me.

When we were done, I asked him to pull around and order another.

The next morning I woke up with a huge headache, but I was used to that. Before homeroom I bought a diet Pepsi from a machine and I was fine.

I only lasted another two weeks at Long John Silver's. At break I'd walk across the parking lot to the Western Sizzlin' and buy a large diet Pepsi with no ice. Two, three times a night. It didn't make sense. That's when I applied at Sonic.

Everyone thinks it's funny that I worked there. Don't make it funny, please. It's a cheap joke and not fair.

Leo's has Pepsi. You'd be amazed how few places do. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's--that's all Coke. Burger King used to be Pepsi but they changed. They must have gotten a better deal or something. Sonic's interesting because it's half and half; it's up to the owner. Which do you like better?

I've never had Jolt, but Darcy says it's amazing. I would have ordered it if I could.

Meet the Author

In 1996, the literary magazine Granta named Stewart O'Nan one of America's best young novelists -- an honor he has continued to justify in an impressive body of complex and stylistically diverse fiction.

Brief Biography

Avon, CT
Date of Birth:
February 4, 1961
Place of Birth:
Pittsburgh, PA
B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992

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The Speed Queen 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A woman is using a tape recorder to tell her side of the story regarding several murders. She has sold the rights to her story to a famous novelist 'who is revealed early on in the book' to earn some money for the son she will leave behind when she is executed. The author does an excellent job taking you from present day to the past...before and after the crimes. There is a human side to this woman and part of you really wants to believe she had nothing to do with such a horrible act. You find yourself liking her and cheering her on early on in her life, but then you read her side of the story as she makes a series of choices that will effect so many people and change so many lives. In the end, the question remains...does she really take much if any responsibility for the crimes she is on death row for?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago