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Mon January 31, 2005
A TV weatherman wages war against his murderous cousin, who's campaigning to be Alabama's Attorney General.
By Don Noble
Clint McCown is one of those writers who has not yet, but very well might, break through into real fame and fortune.
The Weatherman is his fifth book, his third novel.
McCown was raised in Homewood, Alabama, and shortly after college at Wake Forest University came to Tuscaloosa and studied for 18 months in the MFA program.
In between times, however, he worked in Montgomery as a radio reporter for the Alabama Information Network, investigating the goings-on in the 1978 statewide elections, some of the most tumultuous and corrupt elections in our state?s political history, and that is saying something.
For his reporting, McCown received the Associated Press Award for Documentary Excellence, and now he has refashioned that material into a hybrid novel that is part thriller, part murder mystery, part love story, part coming-of-age story.
The protagonist of The Weatherman, Taylor Wakefield, introduces himself in the prologue. He is in a hospital bed, recovering from being shot.
How all this came about, of course, is the story of the book.
As a boy in Cahaba Heights, Alabama, Taylor had been the witness to a murder.
His older cousin Billy Hatcher killed a black saloon owner and then, when he saw that Taylor had witnessed the crime, turned the gun on his own cousin. Fortunately for Taylor, Billy was out of bullets, but he easily terrified Taylor into a 15-year silence.
This silence lasts from August of 1963, with the Birmingham civil rights protests and church bombings as background and context, until 1978, when Billy, now a very public born-again Christian, is running for Attorney General of the state of Alabama.
Taylor quite sensibly thinks a cold-blooded murderer should not be elected Attorney General and moves to Montgomery to try to stop him.
Taylor is not a forceful or imposing fellow. As a child he was a second-rate idiot savant with a powerful short-term memory. He came in second in the National Spelling Bee, having failed to spell the relatively simple ?responsibility.?
He then had a Birmingham call-in radio quiz show: he was the Sugar Puffs Kid, and the idea was to ask him questions he would get wrong most of the time?after all, he had messed up in the National Spelling Bee?and the caller would win a case of Sugar Puffs.
His odd childhood celebrity eventually fades away.
He tells us, ?As for me, after a low-profile career as a history major at the University of Alabama, I settled into a low-key, low-profile job right there on campus . . . as an assistant research librarian, and my primary responsibility was to look things up for lazy or dimwitted students.?
Few ask him anything, however, and he mostly reads and dreams.
But Taylor, as disorganized and hapless as he might appear, is a determined fellow.
He gets a job as a radio/TV weatherman in Montgomery?no real credentials were required?and wages his campaign against cousin Billy on the air, insinuating his accusations against Billy into his apocalyptic, baseless weather forecasts of typhoons, cyclones, tornadoes, and so on.
From this point on, the novel is about threats, extortion, bribery, corruption, and violence, including the killing of an investigative reporter and a bombing at the state capitol.
Taylor seeks and finds Alissa, the girl he lost to in the spelling bee, but she is in the middle of a probationary period, hoping to become a nun, and working at a hospice in Baldwin County.
With Alissa?s help?and she is half crazy?they sabotage Billy?s campaign and may or may not live happily ever after.
The Weatherman is in part a novel of politics and corruption, but it is not All the King?s Men.
If this novel were in an art museum, it would be a mixed media work, a collage, perhaps, a collaboration between James Lee Burke and Kurt Vonnegut.
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.