Ray in Reverse

by Daniel Wallace

Published by Algonquin Books

238 pages, 2000

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Stepping Back to Move Ahead

Reviewed by Janice A. Farringer


Later, when he was old, Ray would remember what it was like to be young, and how good it was to be too young to know how serious the world is, that the most serious thing, and the last thing a child learns, is just how fragile it all is.

Seemingly ordinary lives can be excruciatingly fascinating in extreme close up. There is that kind of slow panning feel to Daniel Wallace's new novel, Ray in Reverse. The author steps us back through the life of Ray Williams, from the day he dies to his childhood. Telling it backwards forces us to suspend judgment, bide our time and keep turning those pages. It is peeling the onion with no idea of what's in the middle.

Bracketed by chapters from Ray's heavenly group, Last Words, the book offers scenes from Ray's life, each giving a different impression of the man Ray was. He is 50 and dead, he is an unhappy married man, then happy in a young marriage, then unmarried, a student, then a child. The author gives us a selective presentation of the past so we form our impressions of Ray as we would a new friend, not a character. Starting with the introduction and getting to know that person through snatches of life stories, foggily beginning to understand their background.

Wallace stops at points along Ray's life and tells the story of that moment from Ray's point of view. Then he moves on to a younger Ray in a different situation. This technique is unexpectedly engaging. Ray's life is not assembled in your mind until the end of the book. As modern readers, we often look for the psychological reasons a character does this or that. Reading a life backwards does not allow the reader that chance. Ray is as he is at each life stage and that is all we know. I found that my brain could not make the neat diagnostics in reverse. I liked that. It kept me surprised.

Because of our suspended judgment, the truth that people are chameleons is brought home. We are not the same at 10 as we are at 22 or 40. If we know someone at 15, we want them to be the same at the high school reunion and they are not. Who knows what people have been through? What does "out of character" mean in real life? Why can't the nerd grow up to be the polished guy or the slick guy the bum? They do, all the time. And we are surprised.

Freeze-time reporting without comment or examination allows you to see a human being, not an analyst's profile. In Ray in Reverse we assess Ray on the basis of each glimpse. In the end, we know quite a bit about him, but, as the saying goes, you can never completely know another person. The human heart is too big a puzzle. People disappoint us or inspire us based on the moments we know. Whatever else they have done or been remains out of reach, hidden, sometimes from the person himself.

Ray in Reverse provides no answers. Daniel Wallace never intended to, I suspect. His book is conceived to allow us in on one human's journey. The lesson of Ray's unexamined life might be that the way you act on any given day is just the way you act. No big plan, maybe some childhood morality lingering for a while, but no index, no map. Ray just moves on and does not apologize. He really never sees the big picture either and this is his life, his flashback.

Wallace focuses entirely on Ray. Is this not the way we see our own lives, spotlight on us, friends and family as supporting players? At life's end we won't be concerned with the boss or the spouse. No, we will see our "life flashing before our eyes," starring ourselves. To heck with what happened to Cindy or Joe. This is that moment and Wallace has devised a way for us to visit Ray's flashback, from end to beginning. It is a narcissistic show, but one that is absorbing and readable, not because Ray's is an extraordinary life, but because it isn't.

The author, Daniel Wallace, is also an illustrator and lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Ray in Reverse is his second novel. His first novel, Big Fish, will be made into a film by Steven Spielberg next year. | September 2000


Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.