Don Noble
9:26 am
Mon September 26, 2005

gods In Alabama

This novel vacillates, in a disconcerting way, between being a comedy of manners and misperception and a grim depiction of the sexual violence of small-town teen life.

gods In Alabama

When you hear the title gods in Alabama, you might think there is an apostrophe in it and it means ?God is in Alabama.? There isn?t, and it doesn?t. The first sentence of the novel reads, ?There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel?s, high school quarterbacks, trucks . . . and also Jesus.?

The speaker of the novel, Arlene, is living in Chicago. She has been there for nine years, through undergraduate school and PhD work, is now writing her dissertation in literature, and explains she hasn?t been home to Alabama for nine years because of a deal she made with the deity.

Twelve years earlier, while she was still in high school in fictional Fruiton, Alabama, one hour north of Mobile, she murdered Jim Beverly, the star quarterback, and then promised God that if she were allowed to not get caught she would never have sex again, never again tell a lie, and, when she left Alabama, she would never return.

Of course, circumstances shift in such a way that Arlene, along with her African-American boyfriend Wilson Burroughs, called Burr, a patient, intelligent, handsome, kind Chicago tax attorney, decides to go back.

On her visit to her hometown of Possett, Alabama, a small town outside Fruiton, we delve into her family and high school history with a degree of accuracy a social scientist would be proud of.

First, there is the now common Southern version of the old Sidney Poitier, Spenser Tracy, Katherine Hepburn movie, which we might rechristen ?Guess Who?s Coming to Have Barbecue with Us??

Burr, in the Poitier part, is the smartest, nicest person in the world. The family in Possett will just have to adjust.

Then the novel descends into complete chick lit as we learn about Arlene?s teen days.

We learn of budding breasts, training bras, and mammary envy. We learn about the popular people?the high school football players, baseball players, and cheerleaders?and the ?others,? and who eats at which table in the cafeteria.

We learn of clean hair, stringy hair, french braids, headbands. We learn of flirting, dating, courting, kissing, necking, petting, heavy petting, going all the way?Arlene did, sixty-one times?seduction, date rape, and, finally, real, savage, brutal rape.

We learn of cars and trucks and jeeps. We learn about clothes?skirts, tops, tights, strappy sandals. We learn of eye shadow and lip gloss and yes, there is even a scene of our heroine?s first, sudden, unexpected, and embarrassing menstruation, at school.

We learn, as we often do, that Aunt Florence is smarter and wiser and more cunning that we had thought, but that Uncle Bruster is in fact a dull old fellow who notices nothing. Most males are violent or placidly obtuse, except Burr of course.

Did Arlene really kill Jim Beverly with a tequila bottle? Hang in there and you will find out, but along the way you are led to feel that killing this vile, arrogant peacock may not have been such a bad thing.

Killing your man was okay in Mark Childress?s Crazy in Alabama when Aunt Lucille did it and put the head in a Tupperware lettuce keeper, and it was certainly understandable to kill your husband in Beth Henley?s play Crimes of the Heart.

Now, Agatha Christie?s protagonists Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple may insist that it is never justifiable to take another human life, but several Alabama novelists do not agree, as long as the victim is male and has behaved badly.

This novel vacillates, in a disconcerting way, between being a comedy of manners and misperception and a grim depiction of the sexual violence of small-town teen life.

gods in Alabama is readable, at times clever, doesn?t take too long, and will give a lot of pleasure to a lot of readers, but it has the same relationship to literature as Gilligan?s Island has to King Lear.

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