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Quirky Tale Tracks Father-and-Son Exploits

Dairy Queen Days

By Robert Inman

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Little, Brown and Company

283 pp., $21.95

Trout Moseley knew something would go wrong when his father came home with a car-trunk full of old Triumph motorcycle parts and started tinkering. It's not the kind of thing Methodist ministers do in rural Georgia.

But then Trout's father, Joe Pike Moseley, is no ordinary minister. He's a hulking 300-pound man whose idols are Jesus and Bear Bryant, his former football coach at Texas A&M University. Joe Pike wears cowboy boots in church, walks out in the middle of his own sermons, and considers eating ice cream a religious experience.

He's an odd fellow full of questions, surrounded by folks who expect him to have all the answers.

"Dairy Queen Days," an amusing third novel by Robert Inman presents a tangle of twisted family loyalties, immobilizing theological doubts, and stifling small-town traditions through a filter of teenage anguish. It's a zany tale filled with quirky characters who play out life with honor and conviction, but also with denial and regret.

The carefully rendered scenes are set in small-town Georgia, in the torpid summer heat of 1979. True to the tradition of Southern American fiction, Inman's story is by turns humorous and painful, laying bare humanity with its wretched struggles and wonderful hearts.

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The story begins as Trout's father returns home to Georgia after an impulsive motorcycle trip to Texas. Joe Pike is looking for theological answers, we suspect. Trout's mother has just been taken away to a psychiatric clinic in Atlanta. Little is said about her condition, although Trout, then 16, comes to wonder if she could no longer bear the weight of her husband's religious angst.

Joe Pike had returned to his rural hometown of Moseley, which was founded by his granddaddy. It is home to the only business in town, Moseley cotton mill.

The mill is in trouble: Workers want more pay and Aunt Alma, the boss, won't admit she can't make ends meet. She tells Trout that the cotton mill will be his someday. At 16, he doesn't want that pressure; he just wants a normal life. He settles for a job at the Dairy Queen.

For a few weeks, things are good. These are the "Dairy Queen days," when Joe Pike and Trout survive on lousy meals at home and big ice cream sundaes at Dairy Queen. But things begins to slowly unravel.

Being a Moseley in Moseley makes Trout an outcast among peers, most of whose parents work for the mill. He makes one friend, however, for a while. Keats, crippled as a child by a Moseley mill truck, is the strong-willed, sharp-tongued girl who barks orders at the Dairy Queen where they work. She goads Trout to do something about his family problems.

Trout comes to some pretty mature observations for a teenager. He gives up expecting the grown-ups to make things better for him. He observes of his family:

"All of them, it seemed, were trapped in lives they no longer wanted, whether they had freely chosen them or not. Alma didn't want to be the keeper of the Moseley myth. [His mother] Irene didn't want to be a preacher's wife. Joe Pike didn't want to be a preacher, not in the sense he had originally intended. And [he] Trout didn't want to be sixteen, lost and wretched."

At the end of the novel, Joe Pike comes to a new theological insight. What if the Second Coming isn't God coming to us, he asks, but us coming to God? Wouldn't that involve us figuring out "... the secret of creation and what the dickens we're all doing here?" he wonders.

We don't know if Joe Pike gets - or will get - an answer.

The quote from Danish philosopher Sren Kierkegaard in the book's epigraph aptly describes what both father and son come to learn: "Life can only be understood backwards; But it must be lived forwards."

*Elizabeth A. Brown writes from her home in Hillsborough, N.C.

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