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The Wellbaby by Zack Grenville

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Well, here's something very different. An Kindle book I was able to read for free by an author I've never heard of. But I'm glad I did because The Wellbaby is a refreshing change from the genre fiction I've been reading lately and one of the best fiction books I've read in a long time. And it's viciously skewers the provincialism of small town, small-minded Americans, so what's not to lie?


The Wellbaby tells the story of Amanda Prahl, who earned her fifteen minutes of fame when she fell down a well in the early 70s in a small Oklahoma town, creating a media sensation in the states that ended with her being rescued, minus two of her toes, by a local volunteer fireman, Floyd Smoll. The story starts 17 years later, in 1988, when Amanda, now a teenager who lives alone and works as a waitress at a diner (won't get into the details of this setup here) prepares to take all the money in a Trust fund set up for her with donations Americans gave her after her original rescue. She's in for a rude awakening when she finds out the Trust fund is now worthless due to a failed stock play that is connected to the sudden bankruptcy of the town's largest employer, an apparel manufacturer, which puts a quarter of the town's population out of work, including Floyd Smoll. 


The rest of the book follows a one-year period in the lives of Amanda, Floyd, and other key figures in their small down as they struggle to find security and happiness in an America whose Reagan-era prosperity has passed them by. Along the way we get scenes of near-rape, police brutality, right-wing violence, political corruption, economic greed, family dynamics, graphic consensual sex, spiritual redemption, teenage drinking, Hell's angels and more. 


This may sound like a downer but in spite of many very dramatic (and often tragic) scenes, The Wellbaby is hilarious at times, especially in scenes where Amanda, a rebellious, hard-drinking, sexy working class hero faces off against the town's male authority figures. She's a classic female character. Her white-trash manners and accent betray a keen, streetwise intelligence and a take-no-crap attitude. What I love about her is that she's flawed and understands her flaws. She often makes terrible choices (usually regarding men) and knows that she's responsible for not trying harder to escape the life and town she's endured her whole life (although, as we see, she's had numerous strikes against her in her young life, and only the thought of getting her Trust fund kept her going all these years).


The Wellbaby is not a fast-paced nail-biter. Grenville is not just interested in telling a story; he creates an entire town (in this case, a fading oil town named Iron Lake), with a rich geography, history, folklore and eccentric population. Tall tales and folklore are woven into the narrative, and they truly enrich it. The story of the original Wellbaby event is told from different points of view, each with its own interpretation of the significance (for example, the corrupt mayor of the  town labels the event a tragedy not because Amanda lost her toes but because the town failed to commercially "cash in" on the event). While some of the characters seem like small-town stereotypes at first, Grenville is wise enough to give nearly all of them their own backstory, motivations, and traits that make them fully fleshed out. This is particularly important in the case of Floyd, an introverted loner and laborer whose tragic upbringing make his keenly vulnerable to the forces of extremism that fold too many Americans into their grip.


Unfortunately, the book is only available on Amazon Kindle although the author does say on his website that a print-to-order version will be available at some time. You can read the first few chapters on Amazon to give it a try and Grenville has another one available on the book's web site. I thoroughly recommend it.  









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Thanks Goodwich,

for an excellent review of the book , and for pointing out it was a free book on Kindle [hope it still is!]I shall certainly try and get it from Amazon today. :smile: 

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