'The Big Door Prize' by M.O. Walsh

Baton Rouge native M.O. "Neal" Walsh is out with a new book, "The Big Door Prize," and it's already garnering critical acclaim.

Walsh’s debut novel, "My Sunshine Away," was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize and praised by People magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; the Dallas Morning News and the Chicago Tribune.

“The Big Door Prize” takes its title from a John Prine lyric in the song “In Spite of Ourselves”: “Against all odds, honey,/We’re the big door prize.” The sweet, funny sensibility of Prine’s music is the presiding spirit of this book, with many chapter titles drawn from his songs.

The novel takes place in the small town of Deerfield, Louisiana, which is, “a town so simple it is named for what you might see and where you might see it.” The idyllic life of the community is disrupted by the arrival of the DNAMIX machine at the local store, where for $2, you step in and swab your cheek and a few minutes later, find out what your real destiny could be.

Before long, the whole town is going off the rails, as the mayor turns cowboy, the school principal retires to become a carpenter, doctors and musicians become magicians, and one happily married woman wonders what it would be like to be royalty. Sometimes, townsfolk find out that they are already fulfilling their destiny, and that can bring satisfaction or disappointment.

At the heart of this story is the endearing Douglas Hubbard, a high school history teacher who is finally fulfilling his midlife dream of learning to play the trombone from Deerfield’s greatest musician, the impossibly cool Geoffrey Mallow. Alas, the lessons are off to a rocky start, and to make matters worse, Douglas’s wife, Cherilyn, is acting strangely. Some of his students are showing signs of trouble, and Douglas feels besieged on all sides. To complicate things, Deerfield is hurtling toward its bicentennial celebration, and trouble looms, even in the face of all this civic pride.

Walsh’s brand of comic tenderness is the perfect soother for these troubled times. He asks all the right questions: What would you do if you could do anything? What if you were meant for something new, a change, a second chance? Are you, as Oprah often asks, living your best life?

The answers are often surprising.

Like Thornton Wilder or Edgar Lee Masters, those other masters of the small town collective portrait, Walsh probes the secrets at the heart of individual lives and reminds us to look long, listen hard and offer compassion. There are teachers everywhere if we are willing to learn.

It’s perfectly fitting that a teacher is at the heart of Walsh’s story. Walsh cherishes memories of professors who’ve made a difference in his own life.

At LSU, there was Matt Clark; at the University of Tennessee, there was Michael Knight; and Tom Franklin at Ole Miss. Once, Walsh recalled, Clark left a story of his on his office door with a note that said, “‘This is damn near publishable.’ It was my first glimpse that it was possible to do this for a living,” Walsh said.

So it seems inevitable that Walsh, who is director of The Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, would become a teacher.

Walsh’s fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Oxford American, The Southern Review, American Short Fiction and Best New American Voices, among others.