Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress

December for the The Gables Book Club always means a light read, usually humorous. Crazy in Alabama certainly was no exception to this rule. Yet as funny as this novel was, it was at the same time serious and disturbing. Set in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights struggle in the American south, Childress fills his book with acts and deeds that leave the reader in disbelief.

Crazy in Alabama is really two stories, not intertwined, but loosely connected. It opens with Lucille showing up at her mother's home with her six children and depositing them there so that she can head to Hollywood to audition and make an appearance on The Beverly Hillbillies. Her mother already has charge of two other grandchildren who were orphaned - Peejoe and Wiley. As Lucille gets ready to depart she lets Peejoe in on a secret. She produces a green Tupperware lettuce keeper (every bride in the 70s got one of these) in which is the head of her husband, Chester. Chester was an abusive man who kept Lucille "barefoot and pregnant" by punching holes in her diaphragm.  Not able to take care of all of the children, Meemaw sends Peejoe and Wiley to live with their Uncle Dove and Aunt Earlene. Dove is an undertaker in Industry, Alabama, a town beset by racial conflict. Dove and Earlene have serious marital issues compounded by his drinking. However, he is a man of reason and compassion and does his best to be an example to the boys. 

Lucille travels to Hollywood leaving in her path a plethora of murders and sexual conquests. She has picked up a haute couture hatbox in which she keeps the lettuce keeper and Chester. She hits the jackpot in Las Vegas and journeys on with her personal chauffeur and the hatbox that never leaves her side with Chester carrying on a conversation with her. Meanwhile, back in Alabama, racial tensions are palpable and when a young boy dies, the two sides are drawn into conflict and riots. This part of the novel is reminiscent of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird where justice is compromised. It would seem difficult to reconcile the two divergent story lines, but Childress makes it works. Childress says:
"Life would be impossibly tragic if we weren't able to laugh at it. And a life of nothing but laughter would come to seem silly and empty if there wasn't always something darker lurking ahead down the road, something to laugh in the face of."

Mark Childress infuses Crazy in Alabama with iconic personalities of the '60s. There are the Civil Rights notables of Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Wallace, the Hollywood luminaries like Cary Grant, Bob and Dolores Hope, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Gregory Peck and Soupy Sales. The novel creates its its own playlist of songs from the era with classics like Cannibal and the Head Hunters' Land of 1000 Dances, Brenda Lee's - Emotions, Petula Clark's - Downtown, and Herman and the Hermits' Missus Brown you've got a Lovely Daughter. He drops TV show names liberally: Have Gun Will Travel,
Gunsmoke, Ben Casey, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock, Patty Duke Show, and The Danny Kaye Show. 

The book was great fun, although sobering at the same time. The movie starring Melanie Griffith and directed by Antonio Banderas was entertaining enough, but not nearly as deep and satisfying as the book. It was a good December read. 

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