Friday, September 17, 2010
Why you should never judge a book by its advanced buzz
I admit it. I am a contrary demon. Whatever everybody else likes, I turn up my nose in complete disdain. Later, I'll get hornswaggled into trying whatever it is, only to find that, for once, everybody else was right. It's happened over and over again: E.T., pine nuts, Hemingway, and ... Joshilyn Jackson.
When GODS IN ALABAMA first came out, it was one of those books people just gushed about, like THE KITE RUNNER or WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. "You've just gotta read this," they'd say. I'd make some excuse and go on my merry way. I'd feel guilty about this every time I was in a bookstore, and on one occasion in Barnes & Noble, I picked up the book, flipped it over, read the back cover, read the first page, and went, "Meh. It can't be THAT good." And back down on the big round table it went.
But then destiny found me. My library's supply of audio books had gone pitifully thin, and I was left with, you guessed it, GODS. I groaned and checked it out. But I was hooked by the time I got home -- hooked so much that I had a "driveway moment" where you stay in your car long after you've parked it, just so you can listen to what's blaring out of your speakers.
The book is about one Arlene Fleet, who has sworn to God to repent from her fornicating and lying and to never set so much as a pinkie toe back into Possett, Alabama -- as long as God will do one teeny-tiny thing for her: Keep the body hidden.
The body? Well, that's one of the gods in Alabama that Arlene talks about on the first page of novel. Arlene may have repented technically, but ONLY technically. She has a right-up-to-the-limit relationship with her boyfriend Burr, and she pulls all sorts of stunts to avoid lying -- like buying a laptop she doesn't need or want just to be able to tell her won't-take-no-for-an-answer Aunt Florence she doesn't have the funds to go back home. She'll return the laptop ASAP -- after she's told Aunt Florence. And the bit about not returning to Possett? Well, for all her traveling north to Chicago, it's clear that Arlene has never truly left Possett.
Arlene has a lot of demons to face, demons she wouldn't tackle at all if Burr wasn't insisting on being introduced to her family and the girlfriend of the boy she left under the heaps of Alabama kudzu wasn't hounding her. But before you know it, Arlene is waving hello to the Alabama state line.
The book is a tightly paced mystery, and Jackson is marvelous at creating a flawed hero that you root for. One of the reasons I was so long in reading it was that Arlene is supposed to be a murderess. How can I root for a murderess?
With Jackson's deft touch, I do. Jackson makes the south come alive -- warts and all -- and presents it in the unflinchingly love and honesty that only your best friend can match when she tells you, "You can't wear that dress. It makes you look as wide as the side of a barn." The thing I love best about her work -- beyond the clever mystery, beyond the wonderful characters, beyond how she keeps you guessing -- is Jackson's marvelous way with setting. Even in a Chicago Wal-Mart, Jackson paints a picture of the south and its customs and shows us what Arlene, a true southerner, has given up when she accepts her self-imposed exile. That's the moment that Jackson won me over -- that scene where Arlene breaks down into sobs and is comforted by a woman with a soft accent that reminds her of all she left behind.
I was the one who suggested this book for our BOOK HUNGRY on-line book club, and I'm eager to see what the rest of our members thought of it. You can, too! But first, if you haven't read GODS IN ALABAMA, I'm here to tell you ... you've just gotta read this!