By Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Author Molly Levite Griffis sets her newest novel “Welcome to Whizbang, Ruby Trotter” in 1964 Whizbang, Okla.
There actually was a small Osage County town called Whizbang that grew quickly, fueled by an oil boom in the 1920s, but by mid-century, it was largely abandoned.
The story involves New York hairdresser Ruby Trotter, who comes to the rural South and brings women’s liberation along with her.
Griffis introduces us to Whizbang’s prominent citizens, who represent caricatures of the day’s social norms, tending to be either exultant or adamantly opposed to the change that Trotter represents.
The townsfolk often seem to be cartoon characters.
However, the buffoonish reality when these cultural clashes actually occurred, which they did throughout America in the 1960s, would probably be difficult to exaggerate.
Griffis liberally takes extended detours early in the novel, detailing Whizbang’s small town quirks.
These include a mystically malfunctioning traffic light, a feline with supernatural powers and a character obsessed with numerology and horoscopes.
Nevermind that Betty Friedan’s seminal “Feminine Mystique” was published in 1963 and wouldn’t be common on college campuses until years later, a “well-thumbed copy” is being passed around among Whizbang women during church services disguised as a Bible.
Griffis doesn’t miss an opportunity to make reference to colorful details from the 1960s, but those frequently stray into future decades. Hula hoops and troll dolls definitely of the era, drug testing for marijuana not until the 1980s.
Trotter’s minor character’s brother is described as a “hippie” with tattoos, but that word wasn’t in common usage anywhere in 1964, and skin ink didn’t become popular in counter culture circles until much later.
Those may be nit-picking details but distracting nonetheless.
And Whizbang is chock full of details. It’s seldom just a plate of eggs, it’s a “… red Fiesta plate …” with two enormous unblinking eyes.
The novel is at its most entertaining in the vivid conversations among Whizbang’s small business people, lovers, early adopters and more conservative pillars of the community.
Ruby Trotter’s hairdressing salon is advertised as being “unisex” and there’s great debate about just exactly what that means.
“Unisex means trouble,” one macho man growls.
Most of the first 150 pages involve extended dialogue debating Ruby Trotter’s scandalous flamboyance and what changes it means for Whizbang.
Hair color and haircuts matter. Stylish new Mustang automobiles matter.
Round beds with satin sheets had never been seen outside Cosmopolitan or Playboy before Ruby came to town.
She represents a world outside small town Oklahoma that’s at once attractive and repellent.
Trotter’s an independent business woman with a mind of her own who infuriates and provides erotic arousal to the male cast of characters.
Most of the action occurs near the end of the novel.
Ruby marries Wilber Ebbe, the shy and seemingly inexperienced chamber of commerce vice president. It turns out he really does know how to lock lips.
There’s a big “Suppressed Desire Halloween Party” that allows all comers to let their hair down, which results in further matrimony. Ruby saves Whizbang’s entire business district from fire with a garden hose. This results in her being admitted as a member of the chamber of commerce and celebrated with a banner bearing her name over Main Street.
It’s a whirlwind final 25 pages that culminates with Ruby and Wilber leaving for a three-month honeymoon. This extended love-fest is seen naturally as a sign of the times by a female resident.
“Welcome to Whizbang, Ruby Trotter” is a book about culture wars 50 years ago that are, sadly, often still being waged today.