Roller Girls Love Bobby Knight
by Michael Wayne Hampton
Artistically Declined Press, May 2014
112 Pages, $10.00
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
If stanzas are like tiny rooms holding together words, novellas are like motels off the interstate; more specifically, they are the cheap breakfast buffets where you see traveling families in dated RVs, traveling bible salesman with welcoming smiles and nomad motorcyclists with fantastic beards together in perfect harmony. Things clash in unexpected ways and yet somehow, everything fits as if it was always meant to. Roller Girls Love Bobby Knight by Michael Wayne Hampton is one of those novellas as motels; one that you should go out of your way to visit immediately.
Roller Girls begins with an opening paragraph as smooth as any newly paved highway:
By the time they reached the bridge leading to Kentucky the car was filled with surf rock. Jenny pressed her forehead against the coolness of the window and chewed her hair while her mama Alice pushed the gas pedal down and raced across the expanse of steel and concrete. Dick Dale’s guitar was driving as much as she was by then, shoving them forward into another new start. Jenny looked down at the dishwater colored water of the Ohio River below and pictured tanned curlyheaded surfer boys plowing across it, their longboards cutting wild paths between coal barges and cabin cruisers. It was easy to imagine anything that she wanted to since nothing made sense anymore.
The story starts with Jenny and her mother Alice as they travel in search of Alice’s 64 Gibson guitar and Jenny’s supposed father figure Terry. Alice is stuck somewhere between wanderlust and motherhood and while she may have tried to intertwine the two, she realizes the effects it has on Jenny. To keep Jenny from falling further into a lack of identity, Alice finds Molly, her older daughter who managed to find herself and no longer survive as baggage to Alice’s freefalling life. From here, we are introduced to hair dressers by day, manic monsters on skates by night women and the charming Bobby Knight. It is here that Jenny learns what life outside of her mother’s Plymouth Valiant is like, it’s here she becomes her very own hellcat.
It would be easy to shoehorn this story as another tale of teenage growth, but Hampton is aiming for something much higher here. The thing about freedom that is most alluring is the unpredictability of it all. We are thrown into the fray, much like the Southern Belle Roller Derby teams brawl, to figure out the price of freedom and where it takes us. Alice’s freedom is the driving force in the beginning of the story and by the end, the reader is eager to see where Jenny’s freedom will take her. That’s the true beauty of Roller Girls Love Bobby Knight. It’s not that unexpected things happen in this world he created—it’s the suspense of wondering what will happen next. The final decision Jenny has to make shows the difference between what is expected of her and what she expects for her own self. It is the definition of a character-driven story, a mosaic of everything readers are in search of today.
The undercurrent of this novella stands between the Southern Belle Roller Derby team and their DJ, Bobby Knight. At times, Bobby Knight seems to conjure a bit of the mysterious allure of Arnold Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” if he had just been broken in and taken care of, as the saying goes. He is a true enigma as he doesn’t fit the expectations that precede him; he skirts the line of taming others versus being tamed himself, the seduced and the seducer. The girls need him it seems as much as he needs them, and in a completely different way from how Alice gives and goes with men. But the spectators come for both; for the structured chaos of the derby and the calming voice of the man called Bobby Knight, a name that recalls a reputation as loud as a thrown chair. It’s a powerful name that readers would enjoy the history of (it is a story within itself). But in this story, as Molly and Bobby say time and time again, you make your own name. You make your own reputation and you alone can tame yourself. It’s an incredible layer that peels back at precisely the right times, further proving the achievement you see before you.
One of the best aspects of this story is how it fits within the mold of a novella. As stated earlier, it’s reminiscent of a motel. Not a country wide chain of generic walls and signs but a true testament of love for storytelling. It’s that mom and pop joint that run their place for the wayward travelers, for those seeking a respite from the world around them. That’s Roller Girls in a nut shell. It develops on its own and resolves itself accordingly. It’s not forced, it’s not manufactured. I don’t think this story would have worked as a short story, it would have cut too many corners and forgo the exploration a reader has as they take in the world created for them. Stretching this into a novel would have done a disservice to the story, it would have left too many mysterious answered and to be honest that’s the beauty of it. Rarely does a story do a form justice but Hampton really hit all cylinders with this one.
Readers will leave this story with nothing less than fulfillment. Roller Girls is as complete as one would want it to be and with a statement like that, one may expect everything to wrap up nice and neatly. It doesn’t. Nor does it build a vast world around the small town. It is a story within itself, a snow globe that needs to be shaken time and time again to see how pretty it really is. As stated in the beginning, sometimes you need to get off the beaten path to find something truly beautiful, something worthwhile. We search for places like the packed Roller Dome and characters like Molly and Bobby Knight. I beg of you, get lost in this writing and you will be all the better for it.