St. Dale

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I like the works of Sharyn McCrumb. From the great science fiction convention send-ups of Bimbos of the Death Sun and Zombies of the Gene Pool to the marvelous atmospheric mysteries The Rosewood Casket and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Sharyn McCrumb weaves a fine story with interesting, realistic characters.

She has done so once again with this off-beat story about a tour group going on a Dale Earnhardt memorial tour. McCrumb is at her most comfortable dealing with the people of the southern Appalachians and adjacent territories, and the structure of this story gives her a chance to exercise her gifts in full.

The tour is hosted by an ex-NASCAR driver who leads the party of about fourteen pilgrims through a variety of sites from the Bristol Speedway in Tennessee to "The Lady in Black"--the Darlington Speedway in South Carolina. Along the way the reader learns far more than he or she ever dreamed possible about NASCAR drivers, history, strategy, and fans. From the waitress in New Hampshire who counts her change "One, two, Dale, four, five" to the size and banking in each of the major speedways, to the deaths of NASCAR's major figures, to the meaning of these secular saints.

And that is the theme that McCrumb explores in detail as we traverse the book. Why are some people (Elvis springs to mind) embraced by the populace and made a kind of "secular saint" even though the conduct of their lives is hardly exemplary? In this case, we explore the Dale Earnhardt phenomenon. Killed in February 2001 in a horrific crash at the Daytona Speedway, Earnhardt rapidly became the stuff of legends as there were battles fought over his autopsy and photographs from it. Know as "The Intimidator" because of his driving tactics, Earnhardt appears to have been the kind of person about whom there are no "middle opinions." Either revered or loathed, Earnhardt occupied center stage for a great many people. St. Dale attempts to explore why that might be in several cases.

Interestingly, although McCrumb provides plausible explanations for the people in her tour group, she fails to really get at the core of why Elvis, Marilyn, and Princess Diana make such a huge impression with their thousands of admiring fans. We know why Earnhardt spoke to these individuals, but surely that doesn't explain all of the appeal.

Aside from this single miscue, the book is wonderful. I learned more about NASCAR and things like "restrictor plates" than I ever cared to know--I also learned how very dicey it might be to engage a die-hard fan in any sort of discussion that might question the value or integrity of the sport or any of its adherents.

A surprising and by turns amusing and sad book--most sad in its theological speculations and absurdities, it is well worth the time it takes to read and enjoy. And it gives us insight into our need for heroes and how, where they are lacking, we build up new and unlikely ones.

And now, back to the world of Shakespeare and Mandelbrot.


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Ha! I never thought I'd read about restrictor plates on Flos Carmeli. That book sounds interesting, especially since I have some who revere St. Dale in my extended family.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 21, 2005 9:03 AM.

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