The Bingo Queens of Paradise
by June Park
(Cliff Street/Harper, $24, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-019312-3
***
Many readers out there are familiar with Billie Letts' Where the Heart Is and its portrayal of a down-on-her-luck pregnant young woman who finds generosity and kindness among the natives of a small Oklahoma town. The Bingo Queens of Paradise contradicts Letts' affectionate view of her home state. If the characters in Bingo Queens had met Novalee Nation, the heroine from Letts' novel, they would have beaten her up and left her by the side of the road.

In other words, if you don't mind reading a book that features alcoholism, rape, prostitution, abortion, terminal illness and domestic violence, then you might be able to appreciate June Park's writing skills and you will not regret reading this novel. If this list of sins and depravities sounds too depressing, walk on by.

Darla Moon has no sentimental attachment to Paradise, the small Oklahoma town where she was born and raised. As a child, Darla and her younger sister Rhonda suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of their mother, the town's good-time girl. Only the love and protection of Elijah True, an elderly black man, kept Darla and Rhonda from total despair.

Now that she is 28, Darla, a talented dress designer, yearns to leave Paradise for New York City, where she can pursue her professional dreams. But she is reluctant to abandon elderly Elijah, fragile Rhonda, and especially Rhonda's two children, who regularly witness their stepfather abuse their mother. Then a miracle occurs -- a decent man shows up out of nowhere. His name is Spirit Jackson and he has come from Australia to be the new preacher. For both Spirit and Darla, it's love at first sight, but as Darla reminds the preacher, they are like oil and water: the man of God and the daughter of the town's Scarlet Woman.

By the time Darla makes her decision about her future, there are surprising revelations and tragic losses. There are also many visits to Big Bucks Bingo, where the natives of Paradise spend their meager earnings to forget their troubles and bet on the slim chances of winning a television, a microwave or a three-speed mixer.

On the positive side, June Park, a British native who now lives in Oklahoma, has a way with words. Her description of Paradise through Darla's eyes is graphic:

When a stranger wanders into Paradise, it's by mistake. No one `cept transients, amnesiacs, and idiots would enter this hell hole on purpose, and those who say otherwise are cozied up to the Devil himself or his next of kin. It's the Kalahari Desert out there, a chaos of heat, glare, and biting gnats erupting like a boil on Satan's backside. Three in the afternoon, the first Monday in July, 102 in the shade. The sun bores into your skull like a steel spike. The land is so flat words don't echo -- they float midair for a second or two then drop like bricks. Red-hot dust devils spin across the blacktop, careen over barren fields, and disappear as magically as they arrived. Dogs bite their owners, storekeepers tell customers to go to hell, and if we reach 106 degrees today, as predicted, Paradise could, `fore sundown, burn to the ground like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Another plus is the novel's heroine, Darla Moon, who is believable and sympathetic. The reader can relate to her struggles to make a better life for herself despite the role she has been born into. She doesn't always make rational or wise decisions, but her heart is in the right place.

However, I'm not sure what June Park was thinking when she introduced Spirit Jackson into the mix. He strikes a wrong note in the novel, as a character who doesn't belong with the others. He's too perfect to be real, and he is also totally unbelievable as a minister. Did some nutty editor tell Ms. Park that Australians were in style? Did she realize it has been 15 years since "Crocodile Dundee" was popular?

There are so many emotionally devastating events in the novel that after a while, the reader becomes numb to them. Even the bittersweet resolution of Darla and Spirit's romance failed to elicit much of a reaction from me. After I finished the book, I closed my eyes and briefly gave thanks for the blessings in my life that contrast so sharply with Darla's difficult existence. But that's not really why I read novels -- I can find reasons to count my blessings every time I read the newspaper. I look for novels that entertain, move or educate me. Bingo Queens didn't quite make the grade on any of those scales, despite the author's obvious talent. I hope she continues to publish but she will be more rewarding to read when she develops some nuance in her style.

--Susan Scribner


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