Slaying Spree Satire

The Speed Queen.By Stewart O'Nan. Doubleday, New York. 256 pages. $22.95/hardcover.[QUOTE FROM BOOK]"She talks into a tape recorder during her last evening on Oklahoma's Death Row, convicted killer Marjorie Standiford -- a.k.a. The Speed Queen -- muses over methods of execution: "All the {Death House} kidding is like the names they have for it, they're supposed to make it easier. The gas chamber's The Big Sleep or The Time Machine. Sitting in the chair is Riding the Lightning. Getting hanged is just The Drop. There's nothing special for lethal injection, just what they call any execution -- After Midnight, like the old Clapton tune. "After midnight, we gonna let it all hang out." All week I've been listening to people whistle it, the way it echoes off the concrete, down the long halls. It's hard to like a tune when it comes at you that way, but I do."With that characteristically clever coda, so ends chapter 103 of Stewart O'Nan's brazen, brilliantly paced new novel, The Speed Queen.O'Nan, author of Names of the Dead and Snow Angel, was born 36 years ago in Pittsburgh, earned his MFA in fiction at Cornell University in 1992 and now lives in Connecticut. Here he etches out a bittersweet slice of neo-dust bowl decadence, as Margie, her gun-toting husband Lamont, her lesbian lover Natalie and her baby boy Gainey cut a crank-driven swath over countless westward highways.A two-quote epigraph sets the tone for this very Nineties novel. First O'Nan lifts a line from Double Indemnity by Raymond Chandler and James Cain: "I suppose you'll call this a confession when you hear it." Then he chases that hard-boiled hint with a hit of rock'n'roll: "I've been drivin' all night, my hand's wet on the wheel," from Golden Earring's 1974 song "Radar Love."As those allusions suggest, The Speed Queen is both a traditional crime confessional and a modern anthem to the open road. Like Cain and Chandler, O'Nan gets inside the head of a good woman gone bad, and like rock'n'rollers everywhere, he celebrates the freedom represented by fast cars, hard drugs and loud music. And does so with style to spare and humor to go.The story unfolds as an extended flashback as told to Maine's great pop novelist in answer to his tacit questionnaire. Margie is making the tape at the financial behest of Stephen King, the real-life sultan of suspense to whom this book is actually dedicated. Her frequent advice on how King should retell her story allows O'Nan to reflect cynically on the current state of fiction and film. "What about you? What are you afraid of?" Margie asks her benefactor. "No one reading your books after you're dead, I bet. Hey, it's okay, they'll still watch your movies, and that's what counts."Like King, O'Nan is clearly concerned with suspense. He cleverly builds anticipation with early hints about the nature and number of the murders involved, then judiciously holds those juicy details from readers until after Margie consumes her last meal of barbecued ribs chased by a final nightcap of three white crosses.O'Nan's task here -- to render a comical, cohesive narrative via a sole narrator -- appears deceptively simple. Actually, he fulfills a much more demanding assignment, steering a swift, steady course simultaneously down several different paths.Because the book is structured as a lengthy recollection from a single character, O'Nan's most formidable task is to fully capture Margie's twentysomething voice -- o easy feat for a guy writer -- but he does it, his tight, twangy prose mixing darkly humorous bons mots with white-trash wisdom. "Living on Death Row is like living in a small town," Margie observes. "It's slow and everyone knows everyone's business."Such black humor permeates the novel, as Margie's animated banter threads its narrative fabric. She repeatedly maintains her innocence while recalling coldblooded killings to a well-known writer 2,000 miles away.Barely below the surface of that complex conceit, O'Nan delivers underlying commentary on crime and punishment, pop culture, youth culture, drug culture, the disintegrating American nuclear family and -- almost a cliche now -- TV's fascination with violence. Such a multileveled approach could easily collapse on itself. In O'Nan's capable hands, however, slick imagery sparkles like a beefy line of crystal meth laid out on a moonlit dashboard, while the story flows smooth and strong as an intravenous injection.Margie's vodka-addled career as a Conoco mini-mart clerk is interrupted when Lamont drives up in a red convertible, pumps a tank full of gas and drives off. As she's filling out the Conoco theft report form, he returns to carry her off into a new life, full of higher highs. "Sometimes love doesn't take much," Margie observes. "You just have to be there when it shows up."With Lamont wielding the syringe, she eventually descends into full-blown methamphetamine addiction and her new roles as wife, mother, car mechanic and drug dealer. Through it all -- weeklong speed'n'sex binges, a prison-bound Sapphic affair, robbery and murder -- O'Nan manages to make Margie an extremely fetching character. Readers will sympathize with her attempts to reconcile with her straight mom, her doting devotion to baby Gainey and even her lusty love for the seemingly deceitful Lamont and Natalie.But after all, it's really just a rollicking road tale, highly torqued and highly sexed. There's more than one good car chase, and several bloody scenes rendered all the more real by their attendant absurdity. "Lamont shot them," one section starts, "but first something really funny happened, the sprinkler system went on." Later, while juggling a hostage situation in the kitchen of a fast food restaurant, Margie memorizes the meal orders coming in over the drive-thru speaker, so the customers won't notice the robbery in progress.A cross between Natural Born Killers, Thelma and Louise and photographer Larry Clark's harrowing studies of Tulsa speed freaks, O'Nan's crafty action-packed novel already reads like a finished screenplay. And its many musical allusions -- Brownie and Sonny, Modern Lovers, Iggy & The Stooges, Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix and Derek & The Dominoes -- could make for a hip and evocative classic rock soundtrack.It would be easy to dismiss The Speed Queen as an entertaining but extraneous piece of the very throwaway pop culture that it satirizes. But there's something to learn from its dark laughter. In Margie's lively, world-wise voice, O'Nan reflects thoughtfully and whimsically on several important issues of the day, including the death penalty, media preoccupation with violence, the burgeoning drug culture and the state of fiction itself.

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