11/10/2014 – BOOK REVIEW: GODS IN ALABAMA BY JOSHILYN JACKSON
Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson starts with a shock and ends with an even bigger shock. Set in the tiny town of Possett, Alabama, the story is a classic example of Southern Gothic literature, which includes works by Flannery O’Connor (the queen of Southern Gothic), William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. You can tell a story is Southern Gothic by its preponderance of violence, weird characters, loners, ghosts, and other grotesque occurrences in any and all combinations. Jackson’s protagonist, Arlene Fleet, fulfills most of these requirements all by herself.
“I was fifteen years old when I killed Jim Beverly, right at the end of my sophomore year,” Arlene says at the beginning of chapter two. For the rest of her high school career, the body remains undiscovered, so when Arlene heads north for college she makes a deal with God. If God will make sure the body is never found, she will stop having sex with every boy she knows, never tell another lie, and never return to Possett. Although keeping her side of the bargain is difficult, especially when her family pleads with her to come home for holidays and her serious boyfriend, Burr, repeatedly questions her insistence on celibacy, she remains steadfast for 10 years. Then, suddenly, Jim Beverly’s high school girlfriend, Rose Mae Lolley, shows up on her doorstep asking for help in locating the missing boy.
When Rose Mae says she’s going to Possett to talk with Jim’s old friends, including Arlene’s cousin Clarice, Arlene knows she has to take action. “Clarice knew just enough to hurt me,” she says. At the same time her Aunt Florence is hounding her to come home for her uncle’s retirement party, and Burr, who’s African American, insists their relationship is at the point where she has to introduce him to her racist family. Feeling pressured on all sides and angry at God for letting Possett come back into her life, she agrees to make the trip home with Burr.
Back at the house where Arlene grew up, most things haven’t changed. Aunt Florence is still in charge, telling Uncle Bruster what to do and caring for Arlene’s mother, who is mentally ill. Clarice has become a wife and mother, but she still lives nearby. Florence and Bruster’s reaction to Burr is pretty much what Arlene expected. To thwart any lecturing, Arlene lets them know the relationship is a done deal by breaking her promise about lying and telling them she and Burr are married. While the family dynamics swirl, Arlene tries to intercept Rose Mae as soon as she gets into town.
In between the present-day happenings, Jackson inserts glimpses into events that led up to Arlene’s encounter with Jim Beverly, and here is where the novel’s intrigue and excellence originate. Jim Beverly was the football quarterback that every girl had a crush on. Although Rose Mae was his primary girlfriend, they broke up frequently, and he had dalliances with other girls. The beautiful Clarice was always on his radar, but Arlene worried about his intentions toward her cousin.
Arlene is the first-person narrator throughout the novel. Understandably, the story of her past is hard for her to tell. She starts off bravely declaring what happened, but at first she can offer only possible explanations for her actions. She also has limited knowledge of all the facts. As the novel progresses, her story shifts with her changing relationships with Burr and other characters. Several times in the novel, Jackson develops one set of circumstances and then gives those circumstances a spin that was unexpected, yet leaves the reader saying, “Of course.” She also builds characters based on those circumstances, which provides ample opportunities for character development that is surprising, yet natural.
The Southern Gothic tradition is not dead. Joshilyn Jackson practices it with stunning results. Gods in Alabama follows Flannery O’Connor’s belief that to make her point, the artist must “draw large and startling figures.” And the figure with which Jackson concludes her novel is not only startling; it is also deeply satisfying.