July 3, 2007

Rules Are Made To Be Broken

In PLAYING BY THE RULES, her second novel about the residents of Lemon City, Elaine Meryl Brown uses the detective/crime genre to tell the central story of Medford Attaway’s search for his birth mother and two sub-stories. The first substory is about two outsiders on the run from the law. The second is a love triangle involving the outsider, Jeremiah, Medford’s girlfriend Louise Dunlap, and Medford.

In the prologue, Brown relates the history of a past event that has a significant affect on the present. The event is the placing of a baby on the doorstep of Clement Attaway, who adopts and raises him as his own. The church lady who placed the baby on the doorstep breaks Rule 2 (IF YOU CAN’T BE HONEST, YOU MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD) and Rule 6 (WHAT GOES AROUND WILL ALWAYS COME BACK AROUND AND HIT YOU IN THE HEAD). The baby, Medford, now a grown man in 1973, sets out to find his birth mother, setting up the mystery of the central plot. Medford becomes a kind of detective looking for clues to the identity of his birth mother. The reader is not on pens and needles waiting for him to find her, though the revelation of her identity is a try surprise, which is the best part of this rather predictable novel.

When two outsiders—Jeremiah and his nine year old sister Ruby Rose—arrive on Nana Dunlap’s doorstep after their car breaks down, she is immediately troubled as to which of two rules should be obeyed. Under Rule 8 (DO BUSINESS AT HOME FIRST, THEN WITH OUTSIDERS YOU CAN INVITE INTO YOUR HOME, AS A LAST RESORT) she should turn them away. But seeing the poor condition of Ruby Rose, she invokes Rule 7 (HELP THOSE IN NEED AND NEVER JUDGE THEM BY THE HOLES IN THEIR SOCKS), and invites them into her home, setting in motion the first subplot. Jeremiah is on the run from the law because he rescued his sister from a cruel foster mother. This subplot of course asks the question what will Billy Dunlap, the deputy sheriff, do when he finds out who they really are.

Medford in his quest to find his birth mother neglects Louise, who has an affair with the outsider Jeremiah, initiating the second subplot. His neglect causes Louise to break Rule 5 (CHEATING MAKES YOU LOWER THAN A DOG SCRATCHING UP A WORM IN THE DIRT). The love triangle subplot also is too predictable. I did not believe for one minute that Louise would leave Medford for the outsider, and Brown’s attempt to show how conflicted Louise is about her plight is unconvincing. That Louise, angry at Medford for seeming to neglect her, would have an affair with the outsider is not surprising considering the fact that for all of her supposed sophistication, she has slept with only one man—Medford. The problem with the subplot is the predictable elements of romance plots make it boring.

Brown combines the mystery genre and the romance genre. The mystery genre dominates and controls the main plot. The subplots attempt to provide some suspense fails because I, for one, didn’t find the characters interesting enough to hold my attention. Involving nine-year-old Ruby Rose in the love subplot is a nice touch because readers love children and animals. It doesn’t, however, save the novel from being unconvincing and boring.

Brown continues to uses similes to set the folk tone, only this time some are truly bad. Louise feels “as angry as a Virginia tiger beetle stuck on its back” sees Medford as “practical as straws on a broomstick”. Medford had been “more restless than a church bell waiting for Sunday to roll round.”

However, the description of Sadie, the custodian of the church records, is laugh-out-loud funny. Her behind “resembled two cantaloupes stuck together on top of thin legs that looked like twigs of asparagus.”

I dislike PLAYING BY THE RULES because the plot is humdrum and too predictable. The true surprise ending does not save the overall story. It only made me wish Brown had come up with a better plot because I like the residents of Lemon City.