Mon February 21, 2011
The Last Queen of the Gypsies
William Cobb has published seven volumes of fiction and has won Alabama's Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Fiction. This novel becomes a dual road trip and picaresque adventure story as we follow the restless Minnie through her years as a prostitute in the old hotel on Cedar Key, to New York and back to Georgia and Florida, not seeking or fleeing, needing only movement, like the gypsy she is. She is not doomed to wander; she is free to wander.
By Don Noble
Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio
William Cobb has published seven volumes of fiction and has won Alabama's Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Fiction. Cobb, in his seventies, has not published a book for nine years. It would have been perfectly appropriate to call that a successful career concluded. Instead, we have "The Last Queen of the Gypsies," a novel with such invention, such pace, that I read it eagerly and quickly and enjoyed it from start to finish.
And what a start. In central Florida in November of 1932 a gypsy family with too many mouths to feed and fearful of their 11-year-old daughter Minnie, who has one blue eye and one green eye, "put her out along a deserted road, put her out the way you would an unwanted puppy or a croker sack full of kittens that you couldn't quite get up the nerve to throw in a creek and drown. Just drove off and left her."
Minnie has nothing but a thin cotton dress and a will to live, and she is going to need it. Within hours she will have to fight for her life against a truly vile hermit redneck pervert named Alexander Mossback Frill, a satanic creation with milky eyes and snaggled teeth stained with tobacco who wears stinking long johns and lives in a shack.
Chapter Two, set in Piper, Florida, on the Panhandle, in June of 1964, introduces us to Lester Ray Holsomback, 14 years old, beaten regularly by his drunken father, Earl, itching to run away. Lester Ray does escape, with the help of his friend, semi-senile 83-year-old Mrs. McCrory who has an ancient car, a 1939 Oldsmobile, and is fleeing from her greedy son, Orville, who wants to put her in a nursing home. Mrs. McCrory is addled but happily she becomes lucid under the beneficent influence of marijuana. They take with them the daughter of a local mechanic, Lyman Duck, named Virgin Mary Duck, a three-foot-high unbelievably ugly dwarf-like girl with hair the color of a boiled carrot. Virgin Mary Duck is female, but not everybody thinks so.
Lester Ray, no one will be surprised to learn, is searching for his mother, a beautiful woman who had birthed and abandoned him in Piper.
The novel becomes a dual road trip and picaresque adventure story as we follow the restless Minnie through her years as a prostitute in the old hotel on Cedar Key, to New York and back to Georgia and Florida, not seeking or fleeing, needing only movement, like the gypsy she is. She is not doomed to wander; she is free to wander.
Lester Ray is looking for the mother who abandoned him, and the reader knows early on who that must turn out to be. He, Mrs. McCrory and Virgin Mary Duck join up with a gypsy carnival, with a full complement of giants, geeks, missing links, Siamese twins, a four-legged woman, hermaphrodites and other attractions, where V.M. has a career in "midget pornography."
As long as Bill Cobb is still writing the Southern Gothic is not yet dead.
Besides these bizarre characters there are of course various other Roma and rednecks, situations hysterical and pathetic, considerable catastrophes, chases, escapes, adventures of all sorts, and some repose in the gypsy/carnival winter quarters at Ft. Myers , Florida.
The gypsies are presented fairly, I think generously, but Cobb does remind the reader that when the carnival leaves town, a lot of stolen chickens, pigs and corn but NOT small children are likely to be leaving with them.
Novels don't get rated like movies, but keeping in mind that Minnie is a professional prostitute and Virgin Mary makes midget pornography movies, one has to consider this for mature audiences only. Some might not appreciate this wild romp, but I sure did.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."