Ever since I became a serious reader about 50 years ago, I’ve been hearing opinions about “the great American novel.” Does such a novel exist? If so, is it Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” or Mark Twain’s writings about Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer or something else?
Less conversation occurs about “the great Missouri novel.” That said, I have read a few dozen novels set in Missouri. The newest, “The Empire Rolls,” would certainly count as a strong candidate for masterfully capturing the soul of the state during contemporary times.
The author, Trudy Lewis, is not a native, but she has resided in Columbia, Mo., for a couple of decades. She teaches English at the University of Missouri, publishing novels and short stories as time and inspiration permit.
Her publisher this time is a new venture based in Springfield, within the English Department at Missouri State University. Moon City Press is planning a Missouri authors’ series, with Lewis’ novel as the first to become available.
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Some of Lewis’ previous fiction is known as her “Boonslick” stories, a historical slang term relating loosely to pioneer Daniel Boone’s time in Missouri.
In “The Empire Rolls,” the Missouri settings are neither superficial nor obscure. Most of the action takes place in a fictional city that is Columbia thinly disguised.
Researching beyond the text of the novel, I asked Lewis about the Missouri ambiance. In an email message, she said, “I am continually dismayed by the way Missouri is portrayed in the popular imagination as a space without culture, intellectual interest or natural beauty. During my time in Missouri I’ve met many inspiring writers, musicians, visual artists and filmmakers who hail from the state. I’ve spent countless happy hours walking Missouri’s vast networks of trails and exploring its biodiversity. So part of the impulse behind the book is simply to represent the rich cultural heritage and natural landscape.”
In a sense, then, the novel is a valentine to Missouri. But it certainly is not predominantly hearts and flowers. All of the lead characters are degraded or degrading. The violence quotient is high in certain chapters, and the raunchiness factor is often high as well.
Sally LaChance, the lead female character, is employed as a state park ranger, and the park she patrols resembles several in Columbia and Boone County. She cares deeply about the environment. When that passion causes her to lose her temper and unholster her gun as she views illegal polluters, the unexpected notoriety shakes her already tempestuous personal realm.
LaChance’s second job gives rise to the novel’s title. She serves as the announcer at a local roller rink for competitions between an all-female Columbia roller derby team and rival teams from elsewhere around Missouri.
The name of the roller rink is the Empire, based on an actual rink of that name on the outskirts of Columbia. Perhaps not so incidentally, Lewis in real life is acquainted with women who compete for the CoMo Derby Dames.
While conceiving the novel, Lewis became intrigued by what she terms the “comic mock aggression” of female roller derby competitions. As American society becomes shot through with the warrior characteristics sometimes demonstrated by discharged military veterans, the risky body contact on the skating rink becomes a metaphor as well as a bruising reality.
LaChance’s life — often complicated by her quick temper, her early-middle-age loneliness and her past indiscretions — becomes increasingly complicated by the return of Jared Mayweather to her hometown.
He is more than a decade younger than LaChance, a talented photographer who spent time as her lover before departing the Midwest and drifting into a near penurious existence.
Should LaChance greet him with open arms or avoid him, she wonders.
Another significant character is entrepreneur Chaz Enright, owner of the roller rink and manager of the roller derby team. He believes himself to be God’s gift to women of all ages. Despite that weakness, he retains his sense about business dealings, giving him a hold of sorts on LaChance and Mayweather.
Enright’s wife, Ellen, figures into the plot because she is a member of the roller derby team and is rearing a daughter whose father appears to be the long-absent Mayweather.
“Happily ever after” is not a likely occurrence of “The Empire Rolls.” But Lewis does hold out a smidgen of hope to her readers, hope that perhaps LaChance and Mayweather and his daughter, Etta, will discern a way to cobble together lives that rise above dissolute.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the author of eight books.
The Empire Rolls, by Trudy Lewis (302 pages; Moon City Press; $16.95)