Can I get an Amen for Gods in Alabama
Posted September 16, 2010on:
My Twitter book club, Book Hungry, proudly presents in blog-fest style, this month’s book review: GODS IN ALABAMA, by Joshilyn Jackson. Please click the Book Hungry blog links to read everyone’s reviews and add your comments!
I recently blogged that the key to avoiding cardboard characters is to give them a flaw conceived in their back story, the kind of flaw that dictates every decision they make in the present. GODS IN ALABAMA illustrates my point er… flawlessly.
“There are gods in Alabama. Jack Daniels, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits and also Jesus.”
So says Jackson in the opening paragraph of GODS IN ALABAMA. Immediately after this, we learn main character Arlene Fleet did a real bad thing. She killed a god of the high school quarterback persuasion, and left his body on an Alabama heap. For those not in the know, a “heap” is a weed, a vine called kudzu that encroaches on everything it touches.
In exchange for making sure the body is never found, Arlene promises God she’ll never tell a lie, never have sex again, and never set foot again back in Possett, Alabama. Seeing the flaw here? I was hooked before I’d finished the first scene. Arlene’s already admitted to murder, so what is this story ultimately about?
It’s about… flaws.
On the surface, somebody who doesn’t lie and doesn’t sleep around might be considered virtuous, not flawed, but this is not the case for Arlene. First, she makes it abundantly clear that any and all manner of avoiding the truth, escaping having to tell the truth, or even manipulating the truth are not the same thing as lying and, therefore, are permissible. And then we learn that even though Arlene was the town harlot back in high school, having worked her way through nearly all of her sophomore class, there was a compelling and utterly selfless reason behind it.
Let’s see. We covered the lying and the promiscuity. That leaves Thou Shalt Never Return to Possett, Alabama. Arlene left town to attend college up north and true to her word, she never went back for a single wedding, baptism or funeral. But when a high school rival shows up on her doorstep, asking all kinds of questions about a certain very dead high school quarterback, Arlene reaches two uh – flawed conclusions. First, she’s pretty sure God’s reneged on his side of the promise. Second, she believes her boyfriend of two years – her African American boyfriend – when he says they’re over if she won’t take him home to meet her family – every last racist one of them.
Wilson Burroughs or “Burr” as Arlene calls him, is a wonder of a character. Completely in love with his Lena, he’s spent two celibate years with her and proposes just as Arlene’s past comes a-calling. Arlene’s response isn’t the typical romantic “Yes!” you’d probably expect. Without divulging too many spoilers, I’ll tell you this much… her response is colored a bit by her past, a bit by that vow she made to God and a whole lot by Burr’s job – he’s a lawyer.
Arlene and Burr do get to Alabama. Meeting the kin folk is a treat. Jackson’s characters are so real, I kept thinking of a kid’s pop-up book as I was reading. Aunt Florence is someone you don’t ever want to cross (especially if you’re a crazy neighbor who has the gall to suggest losing a child and a pet chicken are even the slightest bit similar) and Clarice is just darling. Arlene’s mother is completely out of touch. And then there’s Jim Beverly, the high school quarterback Arlene kills. Even he is a wonderfully flawed character – a bad guy, but not all bad, which makes Arlene’s crime that much harder for her to bear.
These real and endearing characters have deep connections to each other, connections Arlene herself misjudged. Family sticks, she soon realizes. No matter what.
As I read Jackson’s story, I wondered what could possibly fill the rest of the novel since Arlene had already confessed to killing an Alabama god on page one. Jackson reveals a hell of a twist at the end I never saw coming. Arlene cautions us that one of the characteristics a person needs to not lie is patience. Sometimes, the silence and the gaps just fill themselves. That turns out to be a theme for the entire story. Like a grade school game of Mad Libs, we learn by the end of the book that Arlene’s entire interpretation of events had been skewed from the beginning. We learn the true measure of those deep family connections.
And, if you’re a writer, we learn the best flaws in characters may not be flaws at all. Gods in Alabama is a wonderful story but don’t take my word for it. Read the reviews my fellow Book Hungry teammates posted on their blogs.