The Watermelon King

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The first half of The Watermelon King is divided into a number of short chapters narrated by various residents of Ashland, Alabama. Townspeople like Iggy Winslow, the village idiot, Sugar, the bully, Carlton Snipes, the self-important Watermelon Festival chairman, pharmacist Al Speegle, and waitress Anna Watkins all take turns telling eighteen-year-old Thomas Rider about his mother, the beautiful and electrifying Laura Rider. As they tell how she interacted in all their lives, the history of the town and its Watermelon Festival slowly is unveiled. Until Laura’s intervention eighteen years earlier, each year the town would choose the oldest male virgin and make him the Watermelon King; the Watermelon King would be paraded through town until a woman would be brought forth to take his virginity. When her handyman and pupil Iggy Winslow is chosen, Laura intervenes, claiming that she has slept with Iggy. Laura dies giving birth to Thomas, and in the wake of the vanished festival the town begins to fade away.

The second half of the novel is told by Thomas Rider himself, who tells the story of being raised in Birmingham by his grandfather Edmund and Laura’s friend Anna Watkins. Thomas’s grandfather is notorious for his lyrical and entertaining lies and flights of fancy, but he is forced to one day realize the effects these stories may have on people and slowly declines. After Edmund’s death, Thomas returns to Ashland to discover his mother’s past. As soon as he arrives, the town seizes upon him as the new Watermelon King. Thomas is as unwilling a king as his possible father Iggy was before him though, and by the end he will help force the town of Ashland to relinquish the past and face the future.