A first-time author and her character hit the lottery jackpot
Luck, chance, serendipity and coincidence: Patricia Wood knows well these four spices of life. It was through extraordinary good luck that her father, Ray "R.J." Dahl, a Boeing retiree, won $6 million in the Washington State Lottery in 1993. It was chance that her late ex-husband, an alcoholic Vietnam vet, had a brother with Down syndrome who remains a functional two-year-old at the age of 54. It was serendipitous that Wood met a valuable mentor in novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, The Great Railway Bazaar) who encouraged her to drop everything and pursue the novel she was uniquely qualified to write. And it was purely coincidental that BookPage assigned this reporter to interview Wood, who happens to be a former high school journalism classmate.
When Wood and I talk to one another three decades after graduation, it isn't to gossip about our former classmates, but to discuss her debut novel, Lottery, which opens with this line: "My name is Perry L. Crandall and I am not retarded." Wood has shaped her life-affirming book around a most intriguing premise: What if a mentally challenged shop clerk hit the big one?
We meet 31-year-old Perry, IQ 76, shortly before the death of Gram, the cantankerous, caring grandmother who instilled in him ironclad values after his self-absorbed mother left him in her care. When Gram dies, Perry's money-grubbing brothers sell her house from under him and kick him to the curb. He moves into a small apartment above Holsted's Marine Supply on the working docks of Everett, Washington, where he has worked his entire adult life. There, kindly shop owner Gary, his second mate Keith, a hard-drinking Vietnam vet, and the pudgy, pierced cashier Cherry help Perry navigate the swift currents of sudden independence.
Then the unimaginable happens: Perry hits the lottery for $12 million. Before the vulture brothers can descend, Keith helps Perry wisely choose annuity payments over the cash-out. As the family maneuvers to pounce on his millions, Perry revels in his new role as a businessman savant whose simple, successful marketing ideas spring from years spent listening to—while being ignored by—customers.
Owing to its cognitively impaired narrator, Lottery will inevitably bring to mind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Forrest Gump, though a more apt comparison in tone and emotional impact might be Ron McLarty's touching 2005 debut, The Memory of Running.
Wood, who lives with her architect husband Gordon aboard Orion, a 48-foot sailboat moored in Ko'Olina, Hawaii, was just a thesis away from completing her education doctorate on disability and diversity at the University of Hawaii when Lottery sold at auction for a handsome sum. With healthy advance orders and Hollywood sizing it up as the next Rain Man, that thesis may have to wait; she has three more manuscripts waiting to see daylight.
"I've had this kind of windfall now twice in my life," she admits. "I was under the mistaken impression that I would be able to write my thesis and promote Lottery at the same time. Ha! All of a sudden, my Ph.D. has served its purpose; I have the learning. I wanted the degree because then I could get a job. But that doesn't seem to be an issue right now."
Wood has led a varied life: She served in the U.S. Army, worked as a medical technologist, and taught marine science and horseback riding. But it was her encounter at 19 with her then-husband's brother Jeri that sparked her interest in cognitive impairments and society's often-insensitive reaction to them.
"I was uncomfortable at first; I really struggled with my feelings," she recalls. "You could tell that there were periods of time when he knew he was different." Years later, the author herself had that same feeling of otherness when her father won the lottery.
"You would think it's a life-changing moment, but it is more a change in your own cognition," she says. "The perception is that money solves all your problems. The life-altering events of the lottery are more in what you choose to do after that point. Is it going to define you?"
Her father, who was comfortably retired from the Boeing test flight program, had been playing the lottery for less than a year when a machine issued him the winning ticket. His only celebration was to upgrade from coach to first class on the European vacation he and his wife had already booked.
But an equally harsh blow accompanied his good fortune.
"Very shortly after they won, it became readily apparent that something was dramatically wrong with my mother," Wood says. "Her down-spiraling into dementia made me think, is this a pact with the devil? I started thinking, what would you want, win the lottery but know that you would be affected by dementia? I visualized one of those linear graphs—at what point as the wealth increases and the IQ decreases do you become acceptable socially? That was my premise."
Wood's mother passed away last year. This spring, Wood used part of her advance for Lottery to take her 87-year-old father on a trip to Norway to boost his spirits.
Wood received help and encouragement from Theroux, her horseback riding student, and novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard (Deep End of the Ocean), whom she met at the Maui Writers Conference and Retreat. She modeled Perry's supporting cast after people in her own life; there is much of her father in Gram, and her late ex-husband in Keith. Unfortunately, the less savory characters also resided close to home.
"The inspiration for the brothers, in part, comes from my own family," she says. "It caused hard feelings. It causes relatives to stop speaking."
Wood dismissed the suggestion of editors that she abandon the first-person narrative, knowing full well how challenging it would be at times to advance the story through Perry's limited understanding.
"The authenticity is very important. I want people who are termed normal to really feel what it's like to be like Perry. I didn't want to have another book where this person is so inspirational, and celibate. A lot of parents of these kids who have read my book say, yes. Yes. I want to believe that my child has a life."
Jay MacDonald and Patricia Wood were classmates at Shoreline High in Seattle. Go Spartans! Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 June #2
A first novel told from the perspective of a mentally limited man caught up in forces beyond his control. Perry L. Crandall ("L" for Lucky) isn't retarded--he'll tell you so. His beloved Gram tells him being slow isn't a bad thing; he'll get where he needs to go in his own time. She also warns Perry about whom to trust in the world, and especially to value his own abilities and instincts. After Gram dies, his absent mother and siblings swindle him out of the house she left him. Under the protective eyes of his boss Gary, Vietnam vet Keith and convenience-store clerk Cherry, Perry settles into a new routine on the waterfront in Everett, Wash. He has a job at Holsted's Marine Supply, an apartment over the shop, and he takes weekly trips to the Handy Mart to buy lottery tickets. When one ticket pays off with $12 million, Perry is plunged into a new world of fame, wealth and false friends. Predictably, his avaricious family members plot to get their hands on his fortune, but Perry's well-meaning friends are equally worrisome as they happily help him fritter away his winnings and offer amateurish if well-intentioned advice. Tired of the constant pressure for him to sign his Power, as he calls the power-of-attorney document, Perry makes a surprising decision that settles for good the problem of his family and the money. Wood does a good job of scene setting, and the tension around whether--or when--Perry will be swindled out of his money makes the middle of the book a page turner. At the same time, the narrative voice is rather flat, and some of the developments are unrealistic.A thought-provoking idea imperfectly executed. Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 May #1
Just weeks after his loving grandmother dies, a young man with a low IQ wins $12 million in the state lottery, and suddenly everyone is his friend. Lots of foreign rights for this first novel. Reading group guide. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 August #1
By choosing to tell the story of Perry L. Crandall, a 31-year-old man with an IQ of 76, from Perry's viewpoint and in his own voice, debut author Wood has set herself quite a challenge. Although getting used to Perry's narrative takes a bit of time, the technique ultimately succeeds. Perry's life in a small coastal town is radically changed by two events early in the novel: the death of his caretaker grandmother and his winning $12 million in the Washington State Lottery. Soon, Perry's relatives--who'd only just cheated him out of the inheritance he was due on his grandmother's death--are holding out their hands for money. Wood keeps the reader guessing as to how the story will end, and the resolution is satisfying. She meets her goal of portraying a mentally challenged person as a fully realized, functioning human being. Perry's worldview is so charming and fair that by the end, you might think he's the smartest character in the whole book [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/07.]--Amy Watts, Univ. of Georgia Lib., Athens[Page 75]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Perry Crandall has an IQ of 76, but is not retarded, as he'll have you know: his IQ would need to be less than 75 for that, and he knows the difference even if others may not. Perry, the 32-year-old narrator of Wood's warm-fuzzy debut, has worked at the same marine supply store for half his life and lives with his wisecracking grandmother Gram, whose gems of folk wisdom help him along. But when Gram dies, Perry's selfish, money-grubbing family members swoop in and swindle him out of the proceeds from the sale of her house--and then come a-knocking again when Perry wins $12 million in the Washington State Lottery. Suddenly everyone is paying attention to Perry, but who can he trust? Even his friends from the marine supply store behave differently, and on top of everything else, Perry finds himself falling for convenience store clerk Cherry, who has problems of her own. Despite his family's shenanigans and sinister maneuverings, Perry holds his own and discovers abilities he didn't know he had. The wisdoms here run more cute than deep, but Wood's light humor and likable narrator should have mass appeal. (Aug.)[Page 30]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.