“Boys of Alabama”
Author: Genevieve Hudson
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corp.
Price: $26.95 (Hardcover)
“Boys of Alabama” is Genevieve Hudson’s first novel but third published book. In each the reader can see the development of a bright, sensitive and gay young woman in Alabama coming to terms with her place and her place in it.
“A Little in Love with Everyone,” 2018, is a nonfiction work, partly memoir. Here Hudson tells her own story by way of a discussion of 10 gay hero-writers: James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich but especially Alison Bechdel in Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home.”
The stories of her collection “Pretend We Live Here,” also 2018, are set in Alabama, the Pacific Northwest and Western Europe. In one a girl explores a girl crush; in another a girl writes a pop song for her pink dolphin and in yet another a girl searches in the forest for a religious healer to straighten her teeth.
These are singular plot lines but nothing like “Boys of Alabama” which is, to say the least, a daring, unusual novel. “Boys” will be embraced by the gay community, without doubt, and is a work of very smart literary fiction but is bold and explicit and will doubtless meet some pushback from more conservative readers.
The protagonist is Max, a German 15-year-old who comes to Alabama in 2009 with his family; Dad is an executive at an unnamed German auto plant.
A stranger in a strange land, dealing with a new language, Max has plenty to contend with anyway, but there is more, much more.
Max is pretty sure he is gay but is still figuring things out.
This is realistic enough, but Max also, we are told on page 8 of 282, has magic powers. He can bring the dead back to life with the touch of his hands.
Although it is not referred to, I was reminded of Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, in which she explores the story of Jesus as a child, in exile in Egypt, where he has the power to kill his playmates or bring inanimate clay objects to life.
If Max picks up a dead squirrel the squirrel revives and runs off. The same with birds, insects, fish, even dead grass and flowers.
While this is happening, Max gets a powerful taste in the back of his throat: peppermint for grass, vanilla for flowers, bubblegum for a kitten.
This is a given and, as with the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, accept it or read elsewhere.
Fictional Delilah, Alabama, is, we are told an hour, from the university. This is a transparent fiction. They drive on a street named for a legendary coach.
Max’s father knows about this coach and tells Max “He gave them hope. And hope is a remarkable thing to give.” They eat something called chicken fried steak in a restaurant called Touchdown decorated with football photos. The football stadium reminds Max of the Colosseum in Rome.
Max and some friends will spend a traumatic night on the roof of an abandoned building at what was the state mental asylum
To his new friends, Max appears conventional, but he develops a relationship with a classmate, Pan, known as the school “witch,” who presents himself as a freak. Pan wears dresses, fishnet stockings, mascara, lipstick: there is no limit here.
To my surprise, Pan is not the pariah at school that one might expect, but is pretty much accepted. Clearly, there is a mystery here, too.
Max and his family are not Christians, have no religious feelings, but Max is enrolled in a private Christian Academy called God’s Way, his father having been told that in the public high school there is at least a stabbing a year and all the students’ parents had guns which the kids could easily get to.
Max was an avid runner in Germany, but had never seen a football. In Alabama he is made into a wide receiver and we watch his adjustment to football culture, Friday night lights and of course, the shower room. This could have led to satire, but does not. Max likes football, the comradeship, the energy and excitement.
Max also becomes fascinated by a bizarre fundamentalist charismatic preacher, the Judge, who is running for governor.
The Judge, it is rumored, has disciples handle snakes and drink poison to test their faith, but Max is drawn to him. Max becomes slowly aware that Christianity, with its belief that Jesus and perhaps all true believers, can come back from the dead, is akin to his own powers.
“Boys of Alabama” is a brilliant and thought-provoking novel. The characters are new creations, the style is elegant. Much of the material is startlingly fresh.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.