I heard Mark Childress read from his latest novel (or a novel in progress, maybe?) at Squaw Valley and was taken by his humor, poignancy and sense of drama. All of that is played out in his novel “Crazy in Alabama” which I read yesterday. The narrative is a juxtaposition of a coming of age story and an awakening—both of a woman who has been kept down by her husband and of the African American community of 1960s Alabama.

The story’s main characters are Peejoe (Peter Joseph), a 12 year old orphan who was living with his beloved grandmother (Meemaw) until his crazy aunt cut off her husband’s head and deserted her children. The aunt, Lucille, is the other main character. At 33, she has six children, a dead husband and a burning desire to make it in Hollywood, which is where she heads after she has committed the grisly murder.

Childress takes on big issues (race relations, oppression of women, the media, mental illness) and displays them unflinchingly. He also shows how there are some folks—leaders (Lucille also becomes some sort of de facto leader of women’s issues)—who take advantage of serious situations for their own political gain.

Childress proves himself great in this book. He writes with such deft assuredness that he makes it look easy, but it’s not. Clearly a student of popular culture, he weaves details (songs, movies, television) into a fine cloth and makes us feel as though we are right there with him.

Part Southern Gothic, part Hollywood exposé, part political treatise, this book should endure. But above and beyond all that, it’s a helluva great read.

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