This week the Friday Review features a debut author, Joshilyn Jackson, and her novel, gods in Alabama.
“There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”
The novel’s opening line sets the tone for the story. If these icons on her short list suggest a culture conflicted, then Arlene Fleet is a poster child for shredded loyalties. Escaping Posset, Alabama Arlene lives in Chicago. She has an African American boyfriend, Burr, a deal with God, and no intention of ever setting foot in Alabama again. Her weekly telephone calls home set her against Aunt Florence, family matriarch, chair of the Baptist Ladies League, and the one person in the world Arlene truly fears.
Well, maybe not the only one. A young woman from her hometown arrives at Arlene’s door; Rose Mae is on a quest to find a good man, something her therapist assures her is possible if only theoretically. Rose Mae’s arrival triggers more than psychic panic; ten years earlier, while still in high school, Arlene Fleet killed a man.
Rose Mae incites the story, forcing Arlene to return home. An argument with Burr ends with Arlene agreeing to bring him along. The set up is the novel’s weakest point. Ms. Jackson deals with this through flashbacks to Arlene’s childhood, where her skill as a writer finds the power of her story. That skill is displayed best in the two characters Ms. Jackson creates in the center of the ring, Arlene and Florence. She draws these women with a sure hand and an artists’ eye: she prods and pushes into some dark corners and doesn’t flinch when writing about difficult issues.
gods in Alabama combines elements from several genres including traditional romance and mystery. As a debut novelist Joshilyn Jackson walks the tightrope between story and packaging; this is a serious novel that deserves a wide audience. The story’s ending seems right for the material and allows the author to bring her fine characterizations to fruition.
Fellas, it is okay for you to read gods in Alabama. It’s a good book. If you fear loss of manhood or expulsion from the fraternity, crush a beer can against your forehead. Just remember to read the book first. And make sure the beer can is empty.