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Mon August 21, 2006
Monroeville native Mark Childress' biggest hit to date was, "Crazy in Alabama." Childress is again concocting a mix of the comic and dark, and it would be best for the reader to stay alert.
By Don Noble
Monroeville native Mark Childress' biggest hit to date was of course Crazy in Alabama. Readers loved the novel, and loved Aunt Lucille, who carried her murdered husband's severed head across America in a Tupperware lettuce-keeper, chatting with it as she went.
Childress wrote the screenplay and has since done a good deal of script work for Hollywood, publishing only one book since 1993, Gone for Good (1998), which is an unpretentious novel, but is real fun and never got the attention it deserved. The premise is simple: there is an island off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, where celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, whom most people believe to be dead, are living out their lives in peace and privacy.
Now Childress is back with a big book for which he has big hopes. The novel begins with a terrific opening sequence. Lee Ray Musgrove, a salesman for an agribusiness, has been transferred from Indiana to Mississippi. As the Musgrove family is driving south, traffic is stopped because of a large Allied moving van which is wildly ablaze. As one quickly learns, all the Musgroves? possessions, all uninsured, were on that truck.
This should alert the reader that, as in Crazy in Alabama, Childress is again concocting a mix of the comic and dark, and it would be best to stay alert.
One Mississippi is first of all a high school novel, and despite a lot of "best years of your life" rhetoric, high school is emotionally hard for almost everyone. Daniel Musgrove is a fish out of water, as the Hollywooders say. At first he can't even speak Mississippi. He has to learn to say Miss-ippi, Co-cola, y'all, and so on.
And he has arrived at Minor High in the early seventies, on the first day of integration; tensions are running high for everyone.
Daniel is not exactly a geek, as we have come to know the word, there being no computers yet, but he is not an athlete, or rich and stylish, or from a local "fine old family." He is a sensitive boy who likes music. He and his kind are the natural prey of the football jocks, in this novel the despicable bully Red Martin.
Daniel makes one friend, Tim, and the two boys watch The Sonny and Cher Show together on Saturday nights and even get to meet Sonny and Cher in person at a concert in Jackson. The boys double date to the prom and Daniel later falls in love with Arnita, who is African-American but due to a head injury thinks she is white.
The title One Mississippi has multiple possibilities. Among children, it is used as a jump-rope counting device, and as a timing device for games of hide-and-seek. But its use here suggests more a timing device for a bomb.
As the novel ticks by, in spite of Sonny and Cher and an amusing spell in which Daniel plays in a Christian band in an evangelical musical called Christ!, the situation gets progressively darker. Daniel's father has troubles at work, blows up his own house, and moves his family into a drive-in theater.
Although Daniel has an intimate relationship with Arnita, this novel has a strong gay understory. Eddie, the Baptist youth minister, comes out of the closet to tragic consequences, and Tim is probably in love with Daniel, even if Daniel doesn?t know it. Daniel's mother leaves, and tensions at school grow and grow.
Childress on his book tour has been adamant about not wanting reviewers to reveal the ending of the novel. I think he is mistaken in this, because One Mississippi is literary art, not whodunit, but I will honor his wishes. The reader will notice, though, that the stresses on these boys are becoming nearly intolerable and, finally, at least one of them will crack under the strain.
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.