"Crazy in Alabama" By Mark Childress
“Crazy in Alabama”
Author: Mark Childress
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
When “Crazy in Alabama “ was published in 1993, the Birmingham Books-A-Million hosted a launch party. On Tuesday, July 28, to celebrate the 23rd anniversary, that same company sponsored a gala at the beautifully renovated Lyric Theatre in Birmingham, inviting novelists Carolyn Haines, Michael Morris, Deborah Johnson, and Joshilyn Jackson and Childress’ writing teacher at UA, Kitty Johnson, to join Mark on stage . They discussed the novel and responded to the general topic: in terms of race, religion, politics, sanity in general, was Alabama any more or less crazy than it appears in the novel, which is set in 1965?
Given that three major statewide leaders are being investigated simultaneously for various misdeeds, all had to agree that in this respect Alabama was crazier than ever.
In terms of racial violence, a major component of the novel, things are getting better.
In any case, this event provided me with an obvious opportunity to reread the book and see if it holds up. Is it as funny, insightful, dramatic, absurd, and cleverly constructed as I had remembered?
Happily the answer is yes on all counts.
The protagonist, Peter Joseph, known as PeeJoe, 12 years old, a charming, naturally virtuous boy, a Huck Finn in Lower Alabama, moves through the story blind in one eye, wearing a patch. Like Tiresius, the half-blind boy can see better than others. He responds to injustice. Like Huck he has not yet been corrupted by the racism around him.
Peejoe can see no sensible reason why all kids, of both races, can’t share the municipal pool.
Lucille, the character most readers remember, poisons her husband Chester with D-con, cuts off his head with an electric carving knife and carries it in a Tupperware lettuce keeper to Hollywood, where she appears in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
The donee here, the given, is that Chester was an oppressive husband who needed killing. If you’re not on board with that, forget it.
Childress balances the novel beautifully: a section of Lucille on the lam, then the protest marches, Klan killings and political posturing back home.
“Crazy in Alabama” is more erotic than one remembers, as Lucille, free to unleash her sensuality, goes on a cross-country seduction spree as she heads to Hollywood. From time to time , from the lettuce keeper on the back seat, Lucille hears Chester’s head speaking; usually he says “Lou-see-yul. I love you.”
One is reminded that Childress is a devotee of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magical realism: the dead head speaks, ghosts appear, and PeeJoe’s eye may receive a miraculous healing touch, perhaps by Martin Luther King.
The humor on the road trip and on the set of “The Beverly Hillbillies” is delightful and needed, because events back in Industry, Alabama are more vicious than one remembers.
A black teen is beaten to death, another boy lynched, houses burned, innocent men shot to death, all while the corrupt sheriff is protecting killers and Governor Wallace is playing to his racist constituents.
It would be a stretch to say this novel has a happy ending, and considering the number of people killed along the way it is all the more impressive that one remembers “Crazy in Alabama” as purely funny. We do tend to repress the horrible but this is also a testimony to Childress’ comic genius.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.