A Journalist's Archive

The Whim-Wham Man
John Dwaine McKenna
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Purchase your ticket now! Grab a seat on the emotional roller coaster entitled “The Whim-Wham Man.” Scream all you want, but you’ll be compelled to keep reading because author, John Dwaine McKenna, certainly knows how to captivate his audience.
          Set in the fictional village of Husted, “Twelve miles or so north of Colorado Springs,” this thought-provoking novel will stick in your mind long after you’ve finished it. Told in the first person through Jamey McGoran’s perspective, the story begins as he is driving his mother and sisters to town in the family’s beat-up truck. He will drop them off at Hibbards Department St  ore before heading to a feed store on Sierra Madre Street. Along the railroad tracks near Monument Creek, younger sister, Annie, notices a tramp. He has various carved items spread out on the ground. Jamey’s mother says he looks like a “Whim-wham man to me,” explaining that’s an old Irish term used to describe “travelers,” who roamed the old country “selling bits and pieces of things.”
          Here McKenna’s literary skills sparkle as Jamey portrays the man. “His eyes were like brown pools that had no source. Sad eyes, they held only resignation, of a life at the very bottom…” The year is 1940 and Jamey is 15 years old. Following the protagonist for the next 20 years, the author reveals how one fateful day transformed a child into man, shaping his entire life as he seeks redemption for the crime of complacency.
          Somewhere between McKenna’s references to familiar places and his vivid landscape descriptions, I was hooked. But the opening sentence warned me; “The Whim-Wham man’s story ain’t easy to tell.” This is far more than a reminiscent tale about the “good old days.” Using a limited number of characters, the author covers the full spectrum of human behavior.
          Flashing back to earlier years, Jamey explains how his parents arrived in Colorado. When his mother, Eileen O’Shaunaghessy, walked down the gangplank in 1919, she practically “fell into the arms” of Frank McGoran, a marine just returning from the Great War. Jamey speaks of her in loving terms as she works to supplement the family’s income by selling eggs and butter and sewing their clothing. If she has one fault, it’s tolerating her husband’s abusive behavior. He works for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. McKenna’s masterful writing tells us all we need to know about him in one phrase.“A man looking for a reason to drink can always find one.”
          Next, there’s the wealthy Brickman family, who have a daughter about the same age as Jamey’s sister, Catherine. They represent kind, hard-working people, who often hire Jamey to do odd jobs around their ranch. As the family exchanges humorous banter across the breakfast table, they have no idea that their lives will be permanently changed before the day is over.
          Readers encounter Sheriff Malone near the end of the story; he is a corrupt official more interested in staying in office than enforcing the law. His character is revealed when he tells a vigilante mob, “I didn’t see nothin’ here tonight. But I goddamned well better see each a yez in the fall, come election time, supportin’ me, an’ all the rest of our Democrat ticket.”
          A  number of other characters represent average people, who try to do what’s right but sometimes fall short of that goal. Then there is the feeble whim-wham man, the type of unfortunate person that often becomes a scapegoat for the more sinister beings who inhabit our world. Yet, McKenna poignantly illustrates that neither social class nor moral fortitude will protect you from their heinous actions.
          In a mere 133 pages, McKenna lures readers into a pleasant mood with a beautiful setting that is suddenly shattered by the horrific acts of a psychopath. He will go unnamed, but I’m sure you’ll know who I mean when you read “The Whim-Wham Man.” Read the notes at the end of the book too. Sadly, McKenna’s fictional rendition isn’t any more unsettling than the historical actions that prompted him to write this book. Troubling? Yes. Worth the read? Absolutely!

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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