Bookbyte: Gods in Alabama

Our book club read Joshilyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama. Unfortunately, I had to miss the meeting, but I did read the book. So instead of a book club recap, we’ll just have a  review.

gods is a fast-paced, humorous, Southern-flavored romp. It has a killer opening line: “There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.” The titular gods are lower case in the title for a reason. In Alabama, other things take precedence over bona fide religious deities. The book club members were disappointed I wasn’t in attendance because they had a few questions for me, the sole Southerner of the group. Well, the gods aren’t capitalized in Mississippi either. People will say they’re religious and identify themselves as Baptist, Methodist, what have you, as though their religious affiliation is of paramount importance, but they clearly have other priorities.

The one thing that clearly reminded me of Southern living was main character Arlene’s encounter with a cockroach.

I fled shrieking down the hall, and that was my introduction to the Alabama roach, also known as a palmetto bug. Ever since that moment I have hated them with a black passion. The thought that one might touch me while I was sleeping, or run over my foot as I walked upstairs, haunted my summers.

In Chicago, when someone says, “Eeek, a roach!” they mean a prim little buglet is mincing its way up the wainscoting. In Alabama those same words mean something completely different.

I ran back into the den with [Dead Roach bug spray] and sprayed up, coating the monster. He shivered and clung and then fell to the floor. I kept spraying him as he ran in ever decreasing circles… but still he kept crawling, around and a round, his movements disjointed, like the lurching of a cheaply made windup toy. … I took off my shoe, intending to finish the job manually, but I couldn’t seem to bring myself to smash him.

Roach not pictured actual size. In fact, it's much, much larger in real life.

Whew, thanks for the reminder of these mega-monstrous creepy-crawlies. Being raised in the jungle-like humidity of the south does wonders for the cockroach’s size. My best friend’s baby brother was taken from his crib by just one cockroach… and never seen again.

For the stability of my stomach, I’m glad Arlene doesn’t shoe-smash him. She hesitates because she draws a painful metaphor between the dying-of-poison roach and her own torturous teenage existence. This clearly is her first cockroach encounter. If she had smashed one before, the only reason she would be hesitant about it would be fear of it splattering all over her good shoes. Those things can pop, I tell you what.

So, Jackson can describe cockroaches pretty well. What else is there? Arlene’s Aunt Flo is a perfectly detailed domineering Southern matriarch. Manipulative, brassy, and not afraid to get her hands dirty. Unfortunately, Jackson never really confronts the relationship between she and Arlene. And she never fully explores the hypocrisy set up by the novel’s initial line either. She gets too wrapped up in the least compelling plot element of the book: the did-she-or-didn’t-she murder mystery of Arlene and high school golden boy Jim Beverly. And even the mystery gets tied up in a neat little boy, but only after a predictable twist.

Jackson’s writing is capable enough, although it’s not necessary to use words like  “cloying” three times. Repetition is distracting. Also, Jackson’s unnecessary naming of specific drink brands (Fruitopia) and Internet search engines (AltaVista) make the book unnecessarily dated. It takes me out of the book and makes me wonder, “Do those things still exist?” Fruitopia was phased out in 2003 (two years before gods‘s publication!) and Yahoo! will put the dying AltaVista out to pasture this year.

But the book does present something you don’t often see in popular fiction: an unreliable narrator. Arlene/Lena has a complicated relationship with the truth. She’s able to lie without actually lying to her relatives, her boyfriend, and even the reader. Not everything you read is true. Even on the Internet!

Click the book to RSVP to our meeting on our Facebook page.

Our next meeting will be to discuss Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City on Wednesday, April 6 @ 7:00 p.m. And that’s no lie!

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