“Fancy Strut: A Novel”
Author: Lee Smith
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Price: $11.00 (Paper)
We have all recently celebrated the bicentennial of Alabama and, by coincidence, of the city of Tuscaloosa. There have been a great many bicentennial books discussing Alabama’s founders, early history, larger cities and regions, and major twentieth-century historical events, especially the cataclysms of the civil rights movement.
Most notable here in the city was Guy Hubbs’ “Tuscaloosa: Two Hundred Years in the Making.”
To my knowledge, we do not yet have a novel based on the bicentennial, but I remembered we did have one based on the sesquicentennial.
Fifty years ago, the novelist Lee Smith lived here, through the late sixties and early seventies, working as a general assignment reporter for the Tuscaloosa News. In 1968, as she says in an author’s note, she “covered parts of the Sesquicentennial celebration.”
To a novelist with Smith’s sense of humor, the temptation was irresistible.
“Fancy Strut” is the story of such a celebration in a small town called Speed, Alabama.
To be sure there is no confusion, Smith assures the reader that all the characters are fictional and Speed, Alabama is fifty miles from the university town.
Nevertheless, readers in 1973 and old-timers now will see this as a gentle satire as well as a roman a clef and attempt to identify the characters.
A nice young man named Manly Neighbors has bought the local paper, “The Messenger.” Neighbors is a gentleman, a progressive, yes, but also a businessman and a traditionalist. He keeps on, as society page editor, the aging Miss Iona Flowers, whose father had been publisher. Over many decades, Miss Iona has watched Speed grow and change, and in her opinion, not for the better.
She writes the obituaries in her own genteel style. There are no “survivors.” Instead, she writes: “Left in sorrow to mourn the passing of their beloved are….”’
When covering social events, Miss Iona will have her own way. For a while she puts Grecian urns filled with bougainvillea in every home she visits. At other times, “she draped everyone in mink” regardless of the season.
Monica, Manly’s lovely wife of three years, having finished decorating their new home, is bored to death. Manly has kept on a yard man and the bossy family maid, Suetta, to run his household, and Monica has nothing to do.
“I am going mad “she says to herself.
Monica daydreams about a lover, a man she can meet in sleazy motels, and “plumb the depths of degradation.”
Manly Neighbors and Mayor Higgins, along with Lloyd Warner, the local liberal lawyer and skeptic, Manny Goldman, the “drugstore king” and other leading citizens planning the 150-year celebration, meet mornings at the El Rondo Motor Hotel coffee shop, modelled surely after the Downtown Ramada Inn.
They have hired a travelling production company to put on the spectacle, which will include a Civil War reenactment, a parade with marching bands, massed choirs, the judging of the beard contest, and especially the “The Song of Speed,” a pageant depicting the “history, industry and raw materials” of the region.
The winner of the majorette Fancy Strut competition will lead the parade, but the queen will be not the most beautiful or talented but the young woman who sells the most tickets to the festival. The company says it works better this way.
That production company is headed by Mr. Buck Fire, a kind of failed actor, handsome in his way: “The Junior League was putty in his hands.” Monica will be the chairwoman of the local committee, and, at the headquarters on Apricot Road, they meet.
Monica is confused but delighted. She informs Buck that much of what he does is against the law in Alabama.
Smith creates a wonderful cast of local characters: club women, the village pyromaniac, lovesick teens. The satire can be pointed but is not mean.
The novel, never tawdry, always comic and effervescent, moves towards the natural climax: the pageant itself, which erupts into a crescendo of confusion, fire and rioting, the most exciting thing to happen in Speed, Alabama in 150 years.
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.