I am from the South, which is probably something Constant Reader is sick of hearing about–but I feel like I always need to make that clear. While I grew up in Chicago and Kansas, I have always identified as Southern, as being from Alabama. It’s where I was born, and it’s where, as we say down here, my people are from. I was raised and shaped by natives of Alabama, who were raised and shaped and became who they were in Alabama, because of Alabama, and who identify completely as Alabamians.
I’ve now lived in the south for twenty five years this coming August 1st; even though many Southerners don’t think of New Orleans as Southern. (I would not dispute that thought, either; New Orleans is of the South but is not the same as the rest of the South…but once you cross the Orleans Parish line you are definitely back in the South, but southern Louisiana, while still similar, isn’t the same because of Acadiana.)
My relationship with the South, and with being Southern, is a complicated one, and one that I am constantly evaluating and examining, over and over again. I have pride of region, which is definitely a Southern trait; woe be to those who might condemn or stereotype or insult the region to my face. I am aware of the faults, and the flaws, and the horrors; I don’t need anyone to tell me or lecture me about its history and how it came to be the way that it is now., or of it’s racist history or of the current racism which still seems to be the majority opinion here. I’ve heard all the inbreeding jokes, and jokes about toothless people and hillbillies and white trash and people of Wal-mart and so forth; so by all means, keep them to yourselves. I also have always understood the difference between heritage and hate; I may have been very young but I remember the Civil Rights Movement vividly.
I was never a fan of Confederate statues, for example; I never understood the insistence on venerating men I didn’t consider heroes but traitors, even when I was young. I remember always thinking, but they lost, and they hated the United States, why should we revere that? The cognitive dissonance of being “patriotic Americans” while venerating those who fired upon the flag and tried to start their own country disturbed me when I was a kid and it never made sense to me, and no matter how many times the mythology of the happy slave was spoon-fed to me, whether it was Gone with the Wind (both book and movie), or any of the many other examples from fiction, film and television. The Biblical example of Pharaoh and Egypt (beyond their reject of the one God), holding the Hebrews in bondage as slaves was always right there, too.
And if might equals right, hadn’t the complete and utter defeat of the Confederacy, in such an incredibly humiliating fashion, a complete defeat that left the rebellious slave states in smoking ruins and their economy wrecked (much as Germany was after World War II), further proof that slavery and secession were wrong?
And yet it is an incredibly beautiful part of the country, whether it’s the gorgeous Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina or the massive live oaks of New Orleans, the swamps of Louisiana andthe pine forests of Mississippi and Alabama, the lower Ozarks in Arkansas, the beaches of Alabama and Florida’s Gulf Coast. Savannah and Charleston and New Orleans are beautiful cities; the college campuses of the Southern states are breaktaking in their beauty.
Driving through Mississippi and Alabama, the countryside is so beautiful, the , with the pine tree forests and the red earth, the sloping hills and flowing rivers, that it always inspires my creative brain to think about stories and writing and books. I love the South, despite all the things that are wrong with it, because it’s also a part of me, of who I am. I love its contradictions–like how when you drive through the Smoky Mountains at night you will come across three enormous crosses rising out of the fog that announce the presence of a megachurch…and the same highway exit also plays host to Triple X Super Store.
It’s also interesting that I am returning to my first real manuscript about Alabama, set in a fictional recreation of the part of Alabama from which I came originally, while reading Kelly J. Ford’s debut novel, Cottonmouths–because even though Ford’s book is about Arkansas, the small country town and its surrounding rural area is very similar to my Alabama.
From behind, the woman standing with a guy next to the Love’s Truck Stop air pump looked like any other woman: long hair, too skinny, big purse, big sunglasses. But when the woman turned and smiled, Emily’s chest tightened and her insides tingled in a forgotten but familiar way. Rumors of Jody’s return had come as whispers around town, but until now Emily had lacked proof.
A warm breeze blew petroleum fumes and cigarette smoke into her face while she sought further confirmation of who she’d seen. Gas spilled onto her hand. Startled, she released the trigger on the pump and swiped her hand across her jeans. She sheltered her eyes from the sun to scan the parking lot. But the woman and the guy were gone.
Back on the highway, Emily tried to keep her mind as empty and barren as the farmland that rolled by. When that didn’t work, she turned up the radio and hit scan, unable to settle on the station offerings from the nearest town–country or Christian or the same four pop songs on repeat interspersed with commercials for pawn shops and car lots. Midway through the miles she punched the radio off and tried to tell herself that her new fast food job and her time at home were temporary, though she’d been back a month already.
Cottonmouths is many things, all wrapped up into a compelling story told with gorgeous language. Emily, the main character, has essentially flunked out of college and is wrestling, as so many Southern queers do, with the bipolarity of a deeply Christian small town/rural upbringing struggling against her deepest secret of desire for other women. She’s an outsider, which gives her the ability to see everyone and everything around her with brighter clarity than the insiders have the chance to see–she can see the hypocrisy in her deeply Christian town, and the abhorrence of difference, which makes her feel not only like an outsider but horribly, terribly lonely. It is this lesbian desire within her that ultimately led to her flunking out of college, an inability to come to terms with who she actually is despite being raised in a way that makes her loathe who she actually is. So she has returned to the dying little town of Drear’s Bluff, with its explosive boredom, feeling like a failure for flunking out of college and terrified to admit to people outside her parents that she has failed. She can only find a part time job working fast food in nearby Fort Smith–a job she is too ashamed to admit to her parents she has had to take.
And more than anything, she feels trapped. She wants to escape this town, escape its suffocating claustrophobia, and be free–but she needs money to do that, and without money–as is all too true for most people, she cannot escape.
The return of her best friend from high school, Jody, whom she sees at the Love’s Truck Stop, is the trigger that starts the story in motion. Jody, whom the good people of Drear’s Bluff consider “white trash”, has a baby and is unmarried and living in the old trailer parked on her family’s land. Emily’s past with Jody is also fraught; her family took Jody in when she was a teenager when her mother took off, and one night Emily made a move on her–and the next day Jody was gone, back to her mother and out of her life. This guilt has always plagued Emily; wrapped up in the strict confines of the narrow-minded Christianity she was raised with, and with Jody back now, Emily isn’t so sure what she wants or needs–but those unresolved feelings of first love and desire have now bubbled back up to the surface again.
Cottonmouths is what I would call “rural Southern noir;” while crime and criminal activity is a driving force to the story, it’s also more than that–it’s a compelling portrait of a slice of American life so many Americans it doesn’t affect do not want to face: the death of the small town way of life, the loss of employment opportunity, the collapse of hope for something better. It’s about different kinds of yearnings, and how hope can be twisted into seeing criminality as the only way out. Like Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, Flannery O’Connor and so many others, Ford shows us the reality of rural Southern life; how the deep religious belief can go hand in hand with smug superiority and class warfare–how those who theoretically follow Christ, who ministered to the poor and sick, can somehow hate the poor and look down on them.
There are so many little touches here that ring so true–Love’s Truck Stops, which are scattered throughout the south along its highways and byways; the prayer circles where they drink Virgin Bloody Mary mix; the judgment for not attending church twice on Sundays and for Bible study on Wednesdays; and the viciousness of gossip and the fear that everyone will talk about you, and judge you, and laugh at you–or rather, passive-aggressively shake their heads while murmuring Christian platitudes while the gleam of enjoyment shines in their eyes.
I enjoyed this, and I am really looking forward to what comes next from Kelly J. Ford.