TAKE one Mississippi town, add one white boy in love with a black girl, mix with a close friendship heavily seasoned with undercurrents of homosexuality and bake in the heat of a recently desegregated high school in the 1970s. Voila, you have the recipe for Southern Gothic Lite, Mark Childress style.
This latest offering by Childress, "One Mississippi," is the tasty McGothic the author dishes out to fans of his ambling, affable and yet weirdly grotesque fiction. (Anyone who thinks "affable" and "grotesque" shouldn't exist in the same sentence has never read this writer's best-known novel, "Crazy in Alabama" -- the one made into the not-as-great movie with Melanie Griffith.)
Childress is, above all, an engaging Southern storyteller -- more of the Fannie Flagg "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" variety than the Eudora Welty kind. The assorted types that pepper this book -- the bullying jock, the abusive father, ugly prom dates, certifiably loony teachers and bitter mothers -- verge on stereotype, but because Childress is a generous writer, he infuses each with its own complexity, with humanity, so that even if the characters seem familiar they are not trite. Childress is like a good neighborhood gossip -- just when you feel like you've heard the story before and start to wander away, he throws out a juicy detail you weren't anticipating and hooks you back in.
The reader meets 16-year-old Daniel Musgrove, the sometime hero in this coming-of-age tale, as he and his friends chase a mosquito truck as it rattles through their Indiana suburb, hoping to catch a buzz off the sweet-smelling DDT. Daniel's fun is cut short when his father, Lee Ray, drives up. Lee Ray is a man who never got over the experience of growing up poor in Alabama; memories of the Great Depression loom over Lee Ray and the family "like a dark thundercloud, a certain promise of doom just beyond the horizon."
With a stage such as this set, it's no surprise that heartache will follow when Lee Ray's job selling agricultural chemicals demands that the family relocate to Mississippi. A portent of bad things isn't far behind: The Musgroves are still on the road to their new home when they come upon their moving van on the highway, jackknifed and lighted in a blaze of fire, their life possessions reduced to puffs of smoke.
After Daniel and his brother and sister get to their new school, things, of course, are no better. The three are tagged Yankees the minute they open their mouths, every word they speak betraying their outsider status. Daniel, though, makes a best friend fast: Tim, a sardonic wit and ultimate loner.
Prom night and the fallout from its events prove to be the catalyst that drives this narrative. Predictably, the most beautiful girl in school, Arnita Beecham, is crowned queen, and the star football player, Red Martin, is made king. The twist here is that Arnita is black, and her coronation marks the first year of desegregation at Minor High. When Arnita is struck by a car and suffers a head injury later that night, Daniel, Tim and the football star hide their complicity in the hit-and-run. A complicated web of guilt, anger, love and betrayal forms as a result: As Arnita recovers, Daniel helps the Beecham family by doing chores around their home. His mother thinks it's the Christian thing to do; Arnita's savvy mother suspects it has more to do with Daniel's attempt to assuage his guilt.
The story eventually gets resolved in a twisted and bloody climax, but it's not one tied to the explosive issue of race relations -- arguably a requisite subtext for any book set in the South. When Arnita recovers from her head injury, she is convinced that she is white; the author uses the girl's struggle not so much as a point to drive the action forward but as allegory. Childress seems to be saying that although prejudice is very real, any sense of enslavement is a product of a person's beliefs. Nowhere is this more clear than when Daniel's ignorant Uncle Jacko, who was raised among blacks in the Mississippi backwater, calls Arnita by a racist epithet. Arnita is unbothered:
"Arnita said, 'He's just doing that to get to me. He knows I'm as white as he is.'
" 'Yassum, you sho is,' said Jacko. 'White as Snow White.'
" 'And he's black, ain't you, Jacko?'
"He laughed 'Yes, ma'am.' "
Childress wants to remind readers of how subtle and uneven was the dawning of true racial awareness, and of the power struggles going on between whites and blacks in the '70s. In one of the book's many subplots, black students conspire to sabotage the marching-band competition because the racist lyrics of "My Old Kentucky Home" offend. The band teacher, Mr. Waxman, feels betrayed -- a point Arnita, with her newfound insight as a "white" girl, tries to explain to Daniel:
"They hit his sore spot. He has the idea he can't be prejudiced because he's Jewish. Everybody's prejudiced. Everybody looks down on somebody ... that's why it's so great to be white. We have so many different kinds of people to look down on."
But all this works as the literary equivalent of frosting over what is essentially a story about first love and family loyalty. Through the many tribulations he undergoes in "One Mississippi," Daniel ultimately learns that love and commitment rarely come in the forms you would expect, or hope for. Childress makes sure readers feel satisfied with that journey.
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From One Mississippi
IN Indiana you never saw people like this. In Indiana everyone was white, we were all the same. We lived in neat ranch houses and bought our clothes at Sears, Roebuck. On this bus, we three Musgroves stuck out like dressed-up Sears mannequins. We were nothing like these unsmiling black kids, or the tough redneck boys and their sisters, or the bus driver who barked at every last kid to hurry up, even the ones who were already hurrying.
Janie was almost thirteen, a whiz kid at math, a significant pain in my butt. Just now she looked like a little child on the verge of tears. "Why are they laughing at us?"
"Oh, you'll be okay," I said.