I Still Dream About You

Feb 21, 2011

It seems to me in fact that in this novel the love affair is much more with Mountain Brook and English Village and the view from Vulcan than with Birmingham proper.

Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio

It would be perfectly understandable if George F. Babbitt, the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel, were the last real estate agent ever depicted in American fiction. Lewis describes the profession thusly: Babbitt "made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay."

The recent real estate debacle, caused largely by millions of people being sold houses they could not possibly afford, should have driven the last nail into that literary coffin.

The city of Birmingham, infamous for dogs and hoses, is likewise an unlikely love object for a novel described by Pat Conroy as a "love letter to the city." It seems to me in fact that in this novel the love affair is much more with Mountain Brook and English Village and the view from Vulcan than with Birmingham proper.

And having a protagonist who was a beauty queen is something of a high wire act. Beauty queens and pageants are a stock figure of fun, or, for feminists, outrage.

Yet Flagg has done all of this and more.

Maggie Fortenberry, about 60 years of age, is an ex-Miss Alabama. Her talent was the harp. She knew two songs. Now she is an agent with Red Mountain Realty. It is 2008. The industry has collapsed and sales are nil.

Maggie's personal life is no better. Still beautiful, in good shape and good health but single, never married, no children, Maggie is essentially broke and lonely, finds life pointless and is thoroughly depressed. She decides to commit suicide. (Readers need not worry. Flagg's novels have happy endings; they do not end in "self-slaughter.")

Maggie makes elaborate preparations for her leave-taking. It is funny and pathetic to watch her neurotically make sure no one is inconvenienced in the slightest and each object she owns in the world will go to its proper home?clothes to the theatre costume shop, all bills paid in full, refrigerator and freezer emptied and cleaned.

As the story progresses we learn that Maggie had had a most desirable boyfriend, Charles, complete with a marriage proposal she foolishly turned down, her life's greatest error of omission so to speak. She also conducted an "inappropriate" relationship with a man named Richard, her life's greatest committed error. These men barely appear on stage and neither do any other men. This novel is by, for and about women, and even though Flagg tells a good story and there is some intrigue, a mystery to be solved and some uncertainty about people's sexual orientation?all Flagg trademarks, as readers of "Fried Green Tomatoes" know?I doubt there will be many male readers and I doubt that Flagg expected many.

Maggie, her heroine, lives in the world of women and she feels alone, but she needn't, really.

Flagg has supplied Maggie with some really devoted and eccentric friends. There is Brenda, fellow real estate agent, an overweight African-American woman of great energy and, with everything but food, great discipline, who plans to run for mayor of Birmingham. There is also Ethel Clipp, the office manager in her eighties, with dyed purple hair and two Persian cats, Eva and Zsa Zsa.

All these women mourn the recent death of the owner of Red Mountain Realty, Hazel Whisenknott, a three-foot-tall midget with a zest for living which, while she was alive, energized the rest of the women.

This novel, though not exactly for men, can't be called "chick lit" either. Is there such a thing as "mature woman lit" or "women of a certain age lit"? This novel is that.

Maggie, it must be said, is a conscientious realtor. She genuinely wants to put the right people in the right houses and she is especially concerned with Crestview, a beautiful mansion atop Red Mountain. Her adversary here is the amoral, unethical villainess realtor Babs Babington, a Yankee who cares only about commissions and affects a false Southern accent. There is nothing lower.

There is a mystery in the attic at Crestview. It will be solved. The sappy, hapless Maggie must find reasons to live. She will.