Type of Document Thesis Author Atkinson, Dustin Grant Author's Email Address email@example.com URN etd-07152009-132101 Title The Return Of Paul Duncan Degree Master of Fine Arts Department English, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title Mark Winegardner Committee Chair Elizabeth Stuckey-French Committee Member Julianna Baggott Committee Member Keywords
Date of Defense 2009-05-26 Availability restricted AbstractďLetís take for granted that the notion of eternal return is utterly true,Ē writes Will Duncan, from prison, as he finally reveals his embarrassing secret to the reader: his earnest belief that his cousin, the infamous Paul Duncan, is the actual, living reincarnation of Jesse James. Of course, Will explains, this theory is less crazy by degrees, in his eyes, while he serves time for helping his cousin rob the first National Bank of MaxMart (the largest retailer in the world) on the day of its grand opening.
Will Duncanís narrative serves as the first official biography of his cousin, who did in fact become famous briefly before he died. The novel begins on the day of Paulís return to his hometown of Josephine, Arkansas, after a four-year absence. He initially fled on the eve of his trial for vehicular manslaughter; when he and Will were twenty, they were in a car crash which resulted in the death of the driver of the other car.
After Paul comes home, Will attempts to reconcile with his cousin and former best friend. However, Paul has changed drastically. For instance, he carries a pistol. He is also furious to learn that MaxMart has built a sprawling distribution center on the land which he thought he would one day inherit from his father. The two boys go on a road trip to California, from which Will never truly returns. Meanwhile, Ed Brantley, an FBI agent in Little Rock and a law school buddy of Willís father (a local judge), recognizes a mug shot and travels to Josephine just in time to cross paths with the boys.
The boys escape to Houston, where Paul has two friends: Jackson Thibodeaux and Victoria Sanchez. While hiding out, Will learns of Paulís four years away, which he offers as a narrative that comprises Book II. In it, Will tells of Paulís initial escape from Josephine at twenty-years old and his struggle to survive and avoid capture. Paul bounces around from a suburban drug house in central Arkansas to New Orleans, where he meets Thibodeaux and Victoria, to New York, where he entertains wild ideas of becoming a successful businessman using a fraudulent resume, and finally to Ohio, where Paul finally extinguishes any hope for living a life he could be proud of. In Ohio, Paul resorts to sticking up a gas station, halfway hoping to get caught. But it works. No longer afraid of much, including what becomes of him, he goes home because his father has been diagnosed with cancer.
After simmering in Houston for months, Paul finally initiates his plan for revenge against MaxMart by assaulting delivery trucks, the big eighteen wheelers, on the highway after they leave the distribution center built on his fatherís former land. Thibodeaux helps, following Paulís leadership and promises of money coming soon. Will feels as though heís stepped onto quicksand. Without lifting a finger, the newspapers are including him as a suspect in everything Paul does. Eventually, he throws up his hands and joins in.
And MaxMart decides to open their first bank.
By this time, the boys have garnered a huge amount of attention from both law enforcement and the media. However, instead of being universally condemned, many in the communityóand nationally as wellósupport them, or at least support the sentiment of the slogan they mark on every truck they hit: DESTROY MAXMART.
Interspersed through Book III is the narrative of Maxwell Foster, MaxMartís founder. Will tells his own version of the now famous story of how Foster rose up through the ranks of retail by relentless effort and business acumen. Fueled by the principle of overstocking and underselling, his MaxMart franchise became the biggest company in the retail industry, and then eventually, around the turn of the century, the largest single employer in the world. At the beginning of the narrative, Max Foster has recently stepped down as CEO after more than fifty years. Without his guidance and ties to the Arkansas community, the current Board of Directors of MaxMart begin a push for a new direction: to move the company out of Arkansas. This decision is the catalyst for those who do not wish to condemn the crimes of Paul and Will and their gang.
The Return of Paul Duncan is an investigation, not of the American Dream, but of those who seek it out. It is about the distinctly American mythology of the self-made, the Horatio Alger figure, and the idea that people who become the subjects of myths and legends are ultimately unknowable. It is dark, occasionally violent, and often funny. Will uses the life and outlandish success of Maxwell Foster to contrast against the frustrated, unrealistic, and persistently failed ambitions of Paul Duncan. Also for contrast is a young hip-hop artist from Memphis who crosses paths with Paul a couple of times, and, of course, the life of Jesse James, which is analogous to the life of Paul Duncan in very specific ways, except that Paul never made very much money. And as Foster states in his biography, ďmaking money is the nucleus, the very heart of the American Dream, the radius point of your life from which all other points are measured.Ē
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