By Karinya Funsett
Joshilyn Jackson - "gods in Alabama"
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 21, 2005
Joshilyn Jackson's debut novel "gods in Alabama" starts out with a bang. Unfortunately, it ends with a whimper. I decided to tackle the novel after reading the opening paragraph: "There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches."
I wish the rest of the novel had been as fierce and fearless as the opening. The premise is excellent: Arlene, a small town Alabama girl, accidentally (maybe) kills Jim Beverly, the high school quarterback. When the town assumes that Jim has simply run away, Arlene is free to leave the South and start a new life in Chicago, where the reader is introduced to her as she pursues a Ph.D and tries to forget about her sordid past. All is well for Arlene until an old high school acquaintance - and Jim's former flame - shows up at her doorstep trying to figure out what ever happened to old Jim. The circumstances surrounding Jim's murder are kept from the reader until nearly two-thirds of the way through the novel, and, even then, the author still has a couple of plot twists up her sleeve.
Arlene is thus forced to make a pilgrimage back to Possett, her hometown, to make peace both with her murderous past and with her eccentric Southern Baptist family that she hasn't seen in 10 years. Accompanying Arlene on the trip is Burr, her black boyfriend, who is surprisingly eager to meet her racist backwoods relatives. (Oh yes, chaos is going to ensue.)
The problem with "gods in Alabama" doesn't lie in the story, but in the execution. While Jackson's writing is clean, it is also severely lacking in style. Much of the prose is sterile and faceless. Jackson's first-person narration also feels unbalanced and just a bit off throughout the novel. Too much time is devoted to flashbacks, so the reader gets to know 14-year-old Arlene much more intimately than they get to know present-day Arlene. While reading, I found myself forgetting that Arlene had grown up and that these scenes were flashbacks, as opposed to happening in the present.
Though the flashback scenes are more interesting than the present-day action, the voice was troublesome. Arlene's thoughts would go back and forth, sometimes sounding like those of a young girl, while other times definitely belonging to the present-day Ph.D student. Ditto on the description. I've never heard a 14-year-old say she was "cutting a swath" under a "thin patina of moonlight."
I would feel better about this novel if it ended 10 pages sooner than it does. Jackson tries to throw in an unexpected twist that tries to wrap the novel up in a nice big made-for-TV-movie bow. While it is unexpected, this final twist does little more than annoy the reader who has already been trying to figure out what exactly happened in the first place. The ending is too neat and unbelievable, and is ultimately unsatisfying.
While this novel had potential with its killer opening and (what could have been) a clever storyline, the writing falls flat and the ending disappoints in a big way. There are certainly worse things one could read, but there are certainly better ones.