June 2005

Ryan Klos

fiction

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson

In her debut novel, Joshilyn Jackson hooks readers from the first line: "There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarter-backs, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus..." and keeps the momentum until the end. When the narrator, Arlene Fleet, heads to Chicago for college she makes a deal with God: she will stop lying, stop fornicating and will never return to her home in Possett, Alabama if he makes good on one single request.

Now, after a decade of excuses for missing holidays, reunions, weddings and funerals, God is slipping on his end of the deal as skeletons of Arlene's past threaten their way back into her life. Knowing she needs to return home to quiet the waters, Arlene sets a course for Possett, Alabama, bringing along her boyfriend, a black tax attorney who insists on accompanying her despite her family's racial intolerance. Knowing all bets are off with God, Arlene relearns how to lie in preparation for what's to come in a Southern town where truth doesn't stand a chance against tradition.

From the moment the duo begin their road trip, the adventure unfolds as Jackson sets up parallel stories of the life Arlene left over a decade ago and the one she's been living. Switching between the past and the present every other chapter makes Gods in Alabama a quick read. It has a proper mix of both plot lines, which encourages story flow and precise character portrayal while spicing the plot with tension and suspense.

Not that suspense is in short supply between characters with all of the awkward silences, racist comments, sarcasm, and lies upon lies. Dialogue does more for character development than any explanation could, which strengthens the credibility of both the characters and Jackson. We learn a lot about both characters' stubborn attitudes simply by their tone.

Aunt Florence took her hand off the mouthpiece and said in a disarmingly affectionate tone, "Hello, serpent."
"Hi, Aunt Florence," I said.
"Do you know why I am calling you 'serpent,' serpent?"
"I couldn't begin to guess, Aunt Florence," I said.
"I'm referencing a Bible verse. Do they have the Bible at that American Baptist church?"
"I believe I may have seen ones there once," I said. "No doubt it fled the moment it realized where it was. As I recall, it had a lot of serpents in it, and I am sure I could justly be called many of them."

She also steers away from the typical hillbilly, redneck southerner cliches and instead makes her characters so real that you end up loving them, hating them, and then loving them even more. She creates a bond between reader and characters that's tough to let go of at the turn of the final page.

Jackson spins a story of sex, romance, racism, murder, family and the Deep South into one gripping tale of deception and betrayal, where concocted lies serve better than truth. Filled with humor, memorable characters, careful detail and poignant truths about real life and coming to terms with the past, this fast-paced novel leaves us satisfied. A Southern native herself, Jackson's characters are fully developed, well managed and full of wit and Southern sass. While the gods of Alabama may differ from those of most other states, Jackson's characters all seem aware of Alabama's way of worship and consecration. It's obvious that Jackson knows the unspoken rules and intricacies of the Deep South.

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson
Warner Books
ISBN: 0446524190
288 pages