Review by Claire Matturro
Red Dale Ray is a sweet gem of a book about an alcoholic bar owner, his quirky patrons, his bossy bartender, folks Ray meets on the road, and a moose named Wally with a mind of his own. This is a book that is both funny and yet with serious undercurrents. That Cunningham can write the story so well that it both amuses and worries readers at the same time is a tribute to her talents.
Though Ray, the title character and bar owner, is the main character, it’s Wally who steals every scene the moose appears in. Patty the bartender might be selling cutesy moose merchandise to the bus loads of folks who come to see Wally, lured in by a web cam trained on the moose, but Wally is not a cute little Disney character. He’s a full-grown bull moose, with the potential to injure somebody-as illustrated when he trashes Ray’s trailer. It’s not like Patty wants anyone hurt, she just wants to save the bar from its financial free-fall, preserve her job, and help raise the funds to pay for her son’s rehab. She does a lot of Wally promotions behind Ray’s back, which is easy to do because he’s an alcoholic who suffers frequent black outs.
The conflict between Patty and Ray is heightened by Ray’s decision to sell the bar. But will he? Really? He wants to travel around in his beat-up red travel trailer. He’s already living in the trailer behind the bar because he fears yet another DWI arrest. But Ray is also loyal to Patty and his patrons and doesn’t want them hurt if he sells the bar, which he inherited from his father. His estranged wife adds to the turmoil, Ray’s indecisiveness, and the Wally disputes, but like Patty (and Ray himself), she is well intended.
No one in Red Dale Ray is really a bad person, though they certainly are making some bad decisions. The tensions and conflicts flow from these bad decisions, not from villainous intent.
Ray, like most alcoholics, is his worst enemy. He initially refuses to accept he has a drinking problem, though readers will certainly pick up on that in the first chapter. Yet, with the sly humor the author is so adept at, Ray’s drinking binges are often shown in amusing context, and yet Cunningham does not engage in cheap slapstick for her humor. Rather, she—like Ray—appears to see the inherent comedy in people merely being people and stumbling along the best they can.
The story is rich with a broad range of intriguing characters—from the drunken doc who smokes pot in her car to the serious do-gooder AA sponsor and the biker gang at the AA meetings to the young women with marketing ideas that boost Ray’s interest in the bar, to a host of others. The author finds a base of sympathy with each character that makes him or her a vivid and engaging addition to the book, and that adds to the strength of the story.
The synergy between these diverse characters gives Red Dale Ray a great deal of dash and sass—and fun. Much like the bar patrons in the old TV show “Cheers,” or “Northern Exposure,” these characters play off each other in entertaining ways that moves the plot forward.
Well-done, engrossing, fun and yet with a thoughtful quality that never cheapens the conflicts, Red Dale Ray is a fine book, which should appeal to a broad segment of the reading public. Cunningham is apparently a first-time author, but her writing displays talent and skill worthy of an experienced author—especially with some of her one-liners. For example, Ray on traveling place to place in his trailer: “I knew it would take some getting used to, but nothing really prepared me for suddenly being a stranger everywhere.” Or Ray’s observation at eating at a Mexican restaurant: “You can’t go wrong when you’re greeted by a vulture statue wearing a sombrero..”
All in all, a fine book and a great read. Thank you Debra Cunningham.