<i>Hallelujah, Alabama!</i>

Sep 3, 2007

On the one hand, it seems child's play to make fun of Alabama politics. The legislators have fistfights; two of our recent governors have been convicted of felonies; the scandals in the junior college system are too widespread and brazen even to comprehend easily. How to outdo reality is the problem.

Hallelujah, Alabama!

On the one hand, it seems child's play to make fun of Alabama politics. The legislators have fistfights; two of our recent governors have been convicted of felonies; the scandals in the junior college system are too widespread and brazen even to comprehend easily. There is material enough, for sure. And yet the novelist faced with this embarrassment of riches has to at least appear to invent, otherwise it's just the Montgomery Advertiser or a court transcript. How to outdo reality is the problem.

Robert Ely of Montgomery has given it a fine try. Ely is both a practicing attorney and a professor of literature at Alabama State, and he has created a protagonist, Richard Steick, who is also both. Steick teaches at Oppenheimer State University, named after the father of the atomic bomb. The school motto is "Oppenheimer State. Where Opportunity Doesn't Just Knock. It Blows You Away."

Steick himself is fascinated with the atomic bomb and the Cold War. He calls his free-standing rec room Mushroom Memories and has decorated it in a fifties motif, with duck-and-cover schoolroom posters, framed pictures of Kruschev and his shoe and Nixon with the Hiss microfilm, and videotapes of nuclear explosions. Learned and eccentric, Steick has achieved considerable wealth from some lucky early liability cases and is regarded as an expert in several areas.

Oppenheimer State-a blend of AUM and Alabama State-is about twenty miles east of Montgomery in the separate, fictional town of Hallelujah, Alabama. In Ely's made-up town history, Hallelujah used to be named Hellespont, but several local preachers objected. The meaning of the "hell" part of Hellespont was self-evident, they insisted, and "pont" surely meant point, so they lived in a town named Hell's Point. This was unacceptable. The new town name was religious, which was good, and began with "H" and had the same number of letters, so it made it easy for the cartographers.

(I once heard the story of a coach in Decatur High School teaching his first biology class. He wrote the word "biology" on the blackboard and drew a vertical line after "bi." "This is bi-ology class," he said. "'Bi' means 'two.' 'Ology' means 'the study of.' So we have 'Biology': the study of two things-plants and animals." Close, but no cigar.

Besides being an odd genius, Richard Steick is a gourmand, theater-goer, connoisseur of fine wine and brandy, in general a cultured fellow. Divorced, he has dated a number of women, all members of the "Junior Council": Vonda Vainbeaucoup, Bitsy Assolatta, Monica Sotrendy, and Jennifer Relentless. Ely loves names.

Faced with a sewage problem at this home, Steick goes to Montgomery to see the state Director of Solid Wastes and Liaison for the Department of Public Health, Hoop DeMinus, Jr. DeMinus is the perfect professional bureaucrat. He has worked for every governor since Wallace. "When the Democrats had dominated Alabama politics, he was a Democrat. When the Republicans took over, he was a Republican. A lifetime Baptist, he would be a Buddhist come November if the Buddhist Party won at the polls." DeMinus is greedy and stupid and has a plan to make Coffee County the hot toxic waste center of America, storing there materials so dangerous nowhere else in the country will have them. Richard must stop this lunatic plan, and in a parallel plot, Richard also discovers an 1865 legal document that will transfer billions of dollars from white Alabamians to black Alabamians. He enlists the help of black state Rep. Ernest Grones, also a professor at Oppenheimer State, to overcome the power of the governor, Sid Scroulous. Did I mention that Ely loves his names? Scroulous is a dope and a drunk. He has won on a platform inspired by a sign he saw at Wal-Mart-15% off. The way to balance the budget is to reduce all spending, department by department, by 15%. The voters love it. He has also changed the state motto from "We Dare Defend Our Rights" to "Thou Shalt Not."

In a speech in which he leaves his prepared text, Scroulous declares, "Democracy, the courts, the law, and all that stuff used to be good things, but somehow they've gotten into the wrong hands." Ely loves his creation and gives Scroulous great lines. "We have major problems with crime, education, mental-health prevention and dozens of other things I could name but won't, since y'all know what they are anyway."

The legislature does not get away unscathed in this novel either. Ely writes, "The most significant achievement of the next legislative session was the creation of the Alabama Filling Station Hall of Fame. Most Alabamians let out a sigh of relief when the session ended with so little damage done."

This novel gives a lot of pleasure. The humor is pointed but never vulgar. Ely's dialogue is a bit stilted and formal, and the plot approaches science fiction, in many of the same ways as Walker Percy's Love In the Ruins does, but this is all beside the point. He makes jolly fun of ALFA, greed, stupidity, and narrow-mindedness. As a good comedy should, the plot is arbitrarily drawn to an end and Richard marries his girlfriend. Alabamians should enjoy this little romp as an agreeable escape during these dog days of summer.