Wednesday, December 9, 2009

gods in Alabama

gods in Alabama
a novel by Joshilyn Jackson
(2005, Warner Books)

I can do no better, by way of introducing gods in Alabama, than to quote from the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: "1. Quarterbacks (Football)--Crimes against--Fiction. 2. Interracial dating--Fiction. 3. Women murderers--Fiction. 4. Chicago (Ill.)--Fiction. 5. Young women--Fiction. 6. Alabama--Fiction."

Irresistable, no? There's more. A more complete cataloging would have added a caption covering our narrator Arlene's crazy mother, and her terribly sweet cousin Clarice, and the most formidable aunt since P. G. Wodehouse handed in his dinner pail; and the mating habits of the small-town Southern teenager, a couple of decades back.

Also missing: the heading for "Culture Shock--Fiction", which Jackson introduces like this: "I didn't know a soul, having picked Chicago because it was the farthest place from Possett that had offered me a full scholarship. I really don't recommend moving from rural Alabama to a major Yankee city in one great bounding leap. It's like picking up a prairie dog and dropping him into the Pacific." The cure for homesickness, as it turns out, is an all-black Baptist (American, not Southern, but you can't have everything) church: "Every person I met and spoke with was soon relaxed and chatting with me about the weather or their children or Jesus." Arlene falls hard for the son of her first friend in the church, but she has justifiable qualms about taking him back to meet the home-folks.

There's an art to making those folks sound eccentric but not bizarre, and Jackson has hit it nicely. That art lies mainly in remembering that, to themselves, they sound downright normal--including the next-door lady with the pet chicken named Phoebe-- and letting the clashes fall where they may. It also helps to get the language right; and the food, the colors, and the smells; and Jackson does that, too.

Oh, and those women murderers, and the quarterbacks? Arlene confesses to knocking off a quarterback in the opening sentence; the tale of why, and what happened to the body, emerges over the course of the book. It's not so much a conventional mystery as a tangled tale; it took a couple of twists I didn't expect, while remaining true to the people involved.

October 2005

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