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Mon January 19, 2004
Dennis Covington of Birmingham showed in 1995 that he belongs on the top shelf of writers of creative nonfiction with the publication of Salvation on Sand Mountain. Covington's readers have been looking forward to Redneck Riviera for almost nine years now, and, sad to say, they will be disappointed.
By Don Noble
Dennis Covington of Birmingham showed in 1995 that he belongs on the top shelf of writers of creative nonfiction with the publication of Salvation on Sand Mountain. Covington's readers have been looking forward to Redneck Riviera for almost nine years now, and, sad to say, they will be disappointed. Covington is a fine writer, and Redneck Riviera would have made a good New Yorker article, but there just isn't enough here for a book.
Let me get one disappointment out of the way at the start. Covington should have changed his title. Alabamians understand the term Redneck Riviera to mean LA?Lower Alabama?the Alabama Coast?extended a short distance into Florida?and the term to apply to the blue-collar vacationers on that coast, especially as they carry on in Gulf Shores in general and the Flora-Bama in particular, wearing mullets as they toss mullets. The main action of this book is not set in Alabama or on the coast.
Here's the story. Dennis Covington's dad got taken in by a fraudulent land offer in Polk County, Florida. Polk County sits in the middle of the peninsula, due east of Tampa. The real estate deal was a hoax from the start.
Mr. Covington bought two and a half acres in River Ranch Acres, a so-called "paper subdivision." The perpetrators put up for sale a hundred thousand homesites but never put in roads or electricity or drinking water or a sewage system, and never intended to?in fact, promised the county commissioners not to. Twenty percent of the parcels were under water, but the buyers never saw them and didn't know.
Mr. Covington died in 1988 and left the land to Dennis. It was his father's only investment and Dennis's only inheritance. This book is the story of his attempts to claim that inheritance, and it is a sad and frustrating story.
The land has been commandeered by a bunch of rednecks and made into the River Ranch Hunt Club, and they don't want anyone going in there. These "folk" are the violent, dangerous, snaggle-toothed creatures we know from Cape Fear or James Dickey's Deliverance. I do believe Covington's description of them.
The problem is they quickly become the enemy, and Dennis doesn't get to know them as he knew the snakehandlers of Salvation on Sand Mountain through his months and years of visiting. So all we have are descriptions of their faces, their clothes, their caps, their snuff, their stringy long hair, their rifles, and their laconic and terrifying utterances: "It can be dangerous out there." . . . "The leaders of the hunt club can't guarantee your safety if you camp on it." Heh, heh.
Most people would have taken the hint and walked away, cut their losses. But Covington is nothing if not stubborn. He sneaks onto his land. He has it surveyed. He hires a lawyer. He sets up a floored tent, buys a Jeep. In return, he is cursed at and shot at, the tent torn up, the Jeep destroyed, and, of course, the local law enforcers are not interested in his problems. Still, Covington perseveres.
He is out to reclaim his father's dream, which has become his dream, now nearly an obsession. Of course Covington is right. It's his land, damn it. But the rednecks, the tribe Dennis likes to think of as his people, aren't his people. He's not from around there. He's from up north?Birmingham. An outsider. Finally, of course, he gives up, which does not provide a very dramatic ending to the story, but it is the only possible ending unless he wishes to exterminate all the brutes or get killed trying.
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.