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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review #43, Crazy in Alabama, by Mark Childress

When I was little, my mother had an avocado green Tupperware bowl. She also had a red one and a harvest gold one, and I'm pretty sure there was a blue one, too. They were different sizes, but they all had lids that had a translucent sort of flower pattern on top, so they were obviously part of a set. The bowl itself was also translucent, and more often than not, the green Tupperware bowl sat on the second shelf of our fridge with bunches of green grapes inside. So when Peejoe's aunt Lucille showed up at his grandmother's with her husband Chester's head in it, I knew exactly what bowl Childress was describing. When I called my mom to ask about the bowl, she said she remembers it, but doesn't think that a human head could fit in it. "Maybe the harvest gold one," she said, "although it would be a tight fit." She suggested that perhaps the lettuce keeper bowl would be a better option, as it was a bit taller, and, well, you need room for the neck. I told her I didn't remember the lettuce keeper. "Well, we didn't keep a lot of lettuce in those days," she said. "You kids wouldn't eat it." "Chester's head is freakishly small," I pointed out. "Maybe that helps?" "Maybe," she said, thoughtfully, but I could hear doubt. "I still think the lettuce keeper would be better. Heads are big."
Peejoe (Peter Joseph) Bullis is twelve years old in the summer of 1965. Orphaned when his parents were killed in a car accident, he and his brother live with their grandmother in a rural town in Alabama. After his aunt Lucille serves rat poison flavored coffee to Uncle Chester and chops off his head and puts it in the aforementioned green Tupperware bowl, she takes off for Hollywood to be a famous actress on The Beverly Hillbillies, but not before confessing the crime to Peejoe and depositing her six children with Grandma. Grandma can't possibly handle all eight kids, so Peejoe and his brother move a few dozen miles away to Industry to live with Uncle Dove, his wife, and their daughter. Uncle Dove is the county's coroner and funeral home director, and the boys are installed in the attic on the third floor of the funeral home.
Summer in Alabama is hot and racial tensions are reaching a boiling point. As coroner, Uncle Dove's being called to sign more and more death certificates of black boys who have been beaten to death, but with the sheriff very obviously turning a blind eye to the racial divide in the county, there isn't much he can do. But then Peejoe is inadvertently caught up in it, witnessing the death of a young black boy at the hands of a white policeman during a protest at the city's new swimming pool. Peejoe, with all of the innocence of a young child who has not yet been taught to hate that which is different from him, can't understand why blacks and whites are being treated differently, and installs himself firmly in the middle of what is becoming a race war.
Peejoe might be the narrator and the unwitting protagonist, but it was Uncle Dove who I felt came out as the true - albeit very reluctant - hero in this story. It was Uncle Dove who took in his dead brother's two children, who went to Aunt Lucille's house and dug up Uncle Chester from the freezer in the shed and buried him, who protected Peejoe from the bully of a county sheriff, who risked his family's business by becoming an integrated funeral home, losing his wife and daughter, his friends, and his standing in the community. It was Uncle Dove who drove the funeral home's hearse in to the black area of town after a mob attack, rescuing black victims and carrying off black bodies. It was Uncle Dove who carried the body of a young black boy home and laid him out in his funeral home so the boy's family could say goodbye with dignity. And it was Uncle Dove who taught Peejoe how to do the right thing, even if it meant risking everything.
Interspersed with Peejoe's interactions with white policemen and black civil rights leaders is Aunt Lucille's story. After killing Chester, she goes on a one-woman crime spree across the country, stealing a car in New Orleans, having sex with and then hog-tying a highway patrolman somewhere in the South, seducing a bellhop in Las Vegas, and entrancing a chauffeur named Norman. Finally, she makes her way to Hollywood and on to the small screen, guest starring on The Beverly Hillbillies. She hobnobs with the hoi polloi in Hollywood until Chester's head makes an appearance at a party and Lucille is forced to flee, only to be caught on the Golden Gate bridge before she can toss Chester in to the waves. Once Lucille is brought back to Industry and Chester's head is reunited with his body, she stands trial for his murder while Industry is on the precipice of becoming the next Selma.
Crazy in Alabama is a clever, sneaky little book. On the surface, it's about some pretty nutty people. It's difficult to argue the rationality of a woman who brings her husband's head with her when she runs off to be a famous actress. Dig a little deeper, though, and there's a story about racial divides, freedom, the desire to be accepted as an equal, bravery, and heroism, and I include not only the racial issues and the riots and the lynchings and the choices that Uncle Dove and Peejoe had to make, but also Aunt Lucille's quest as well. "There are a lot of ways you can kill a person," Lucille says. "Chester was killin' me the slow way for thirteen years."
Maybe Lucille isn't as crazy as she seems.
But she should have used the lettuce keeper.

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