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Tue July 19, 2005
As Hot As It Was, You Ought to Thank Me
A novel about growing up in the literally and figuratively hot South.
By Don Noble
The most famous unreliable narrator in American fiction is Mark Twain?s Huckleberry Finn.
Huck is not a liar and, unlike an Edgar Allen Poe unreliable narrator, who tells the reader in the first few sentences that he is an alcoholic or caught for years in the trammels of opium, Huck means to tell you the truth.
He is just too young sometimes to understand what is going on around him.
So it is with Nanci Kincaid?s latest protagonist, the narrator of As Hot As It Was, You Ought to Thank Me.
Berry, yes, Berry Jackson is a preadolescent girl in Pinetta, Florida, in the Panhandle, who does not understand that her mother is infatuated with the Methodist preacher, Butch Lyons, and that her father, who is the principal of the local school, is, to say the least, human and fallible.
Berry is not ?pretty? and, as a Southern girl, therefore, feels ?not real.?
The town of Pinetta may be said to be a character in this novel and not a very attractive character.
It is small, boring, very, very hot, full of mosquitoes and poisonous snakes, and around the edges are palmetto marshes which contain pockets of quicksand. (The pockets of quicksand in this novel are like the pistol which is revealed to the theatre audience in the first act. You know it will go off in Act Three.)
Unsurprisingly, ?Religion was the main sport in Pinetta. We had just two teams, the Methodists and the Baptists?and we kept score. It was Mr. Freddy?s job to get to church early to count cars in the parking lot. This was easy because the two churches faced each other with a gravel road . . . between them.?
The action of this novel takes place in a little over a year about 1954. The Jackson family has an un-airconditioned house and no television set.
There is a family next door with a boy, Jimmy Ingram, who wears his older sisters? cast-off dresses until it is time to start grade school.
?Jimmy was known all around Pinetta as the boy who wore dresses.?
Berry is oddly dressed, too. That is to say, she wears only underpants or sometimes shorts, but is usually barechested. Years later, Berry says, ?I wish mother hadn?t let me go around bare chested like that, but when I said so, she said, 'Berry, for goodness? sake, as hot as it was you ought to thank me.' She says that now.?
This is, of course, a novel of growing up, a novel of maturation, and the most obvious sign of maturation among girls in Pinetta is breasts. Berry?s brother Sowell goes next door a lot to visit Rosemary. Rosemary would take her clothes off and ?then she took his hand and guided it around like he was a blind boy and she was giving personalized guided tours.?
There is not much to do in Pinetta, so the young people have to make their own fun.
This is a novel which reads right along. Kincaid can tell a story, but aside from everyone maturing like mad, it is just episodic.
There is a marital scandal involving the only rich people in town and a wonderful poor white family, the Millers, where teen-age Rennie Miller is almost certainly the victim of parental incest and a great hurricane, reminiscent of the storm in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which drives the snakes up out of the swamp.
Convicts come to help clean up the storm damage, and Berry, now blooming, falls in love with Raymond, a convicted murderer. In a scene I would call child molestation bordering on statutory rape, Berry and Raymond connect.
Berry grows up fast.
Nanci Kincaid has the MFA from Alabama, and this is her fifth volume of fiction.
It has its strengths.
The characters are memorable and the story moves. I think Balls, the story of a football coach?s wife, is still her best. But this novel may please her many loyal readers.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.