Live from Medicine Park, by Constance Squires. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, October 2017. 224 pages. $19.95, paper.
In the novel Live From Medicine Park, we follow Ray, a documentary filmmaker, and his latest project: Lena Wells. Ray travels to Oklahoma, close to the town of Lawton, in order to record Lena Wells’ comeback concert in a “where are they now” like narrative. Ray works to unfold the mysteries surrounding Lena’s previous musical career, why she’s trying to come back now, and why he is drawn to this woman despite the fact that she is part of his job. If uncovering what he can about Lena and his feelings was not enough, he also has to deal with the ramifications from his previous documentary and the fallout it caused. His job documenting the return of a rock legend is interwoven with his own struggle to understand what is too far in the name of getting the footage and how much anyone should interfere with their subjects in a documentary.
The story unfolds in limited third person, focusing in on Ray so we can understand his motives and drives and how they develop over time. Squires frames Ray as a fish out of water with this new project and in this new setting. Initially Ray’s judgments about his subject cause him to make assumptions about her motives. These assumptions get questioned and shattered the more he integrates into their Oklahoman community, making him question his previous project that he worked on in Texas. The community of Lawton is portrayed well by the author. Squires shows the interconnectedness of the people in the Lawton region, emphasizing the limited venues that musicians have for performances and how the region could bring a sense of peace due to its limited population. Ray witnesses Lena’s hesitations to return to the music industry, in part because of her son Gram. These details almost make the narrative read like a piece of regional fiction, and in doing so add extra levels of complexity to the documentary-like narrative. There are questions that Ray asks about Lena’s life and situations that provide a glimpse at how the character thinks, and this allows us to wonder and try to piece things together alongside Ray.
Along with the limited third person narrative providing insight into Ray’s way of thinking and background, we are given snippets of Lena’s former life from a bandmate and from media articles. There is the secrecy found in passing notes between characters, including the intrigue of what celebrities really get up to once they leave the public eye, and how people view them without the lens of the media. The news articles that are provided talk about Lena’s rise, Lena’s fall from the public eye, and about a few of her bandmates. Each of the articles is then analyzed from Ray’s point of view but offer us the opportunity to question what Ray sees from his own reading. These notes and magazine articles are integrated seamlessly into Ray’s study of Lena and keep adding more questions to the ones already presented to him and to us from the beginning.
Nothing is really as it seems in Medicine Park. While everything is still in the realm of realism, the questions that are offered continue to build with each piece of information that is given to Ray. Who is Gram’s father? Why is Lena coming back to music now? Why does Ray feel like he has to be completely objective? What really happened on Ray’s previous documentary project? All of these questions swirl through the narrative, hints of each one carefully placed so there is just the right amount of withholding. There are times that withholding is used just to build the tension for us and to push the plot forward in an overused way, though Squires uses it just enough to keep our interest.
The dynamics and mystery of the Wells family, and their band, is just as confusing to us as it is to Ray. If there was too much clarity in how Ray viewed the people he was with, there would not be a build up with the documentary. The lack of understanding of this new community and their motives is ultimately what fuels the story and leads to a resolution that is unexpected yet still satisfying. Squires could have easily given us the ending that she hinted at the beginning of the book, tying everything up neatly with a bow, but the story works better with the understanding that Ray and Lena have learned something about themselves. A sense of wonder still lingers with us after Ray’s story comes to a close and it works with what Ray has learned about himself and about his craft of filming documentaries.
Squires expertly combines the regional idea of Oklahoma, the withholding of information, and the moral dilemma of being a celebrity or recording a celebrity’s life to form a compelling story of self-discovery and growth. The original “where are they now” vibe to the piece fades out in favor of a narrative that focuses on the mystery that each individual carries with themselves through their lives. Morality is addressed in several different ways in Squires’ narrative, allowing us to choose who is in the right and what is right while the characters have their own view on the matter. This book is a good fit for those that enjoy watching music documentaries, or documentaries in general, and for those that like a hint of drama with their truth.
Deidre Elizabeth Comstock is a second year graduate student at Winthrop University and currently working on a novel of her own.