Gods in Alabama (Jackson)

Gods in Alabama
Joshilyn Jackson, 2005
Grand Central Publishing
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780446178167

When Arlene Fleet headed off to college in Chicago, she made three promises to God: She would never again lie, never fornicate outside of marriage, and never, ever go back to her tiny hometown of Possett, Alabama (the "fourth rack of Hell"). All God had to do in exchange was to make sure the body of high school quarterback Jim Beverly was never found.

Ten years later, Arlene has kept her promises, but an old schoolmate has recently turned up asking questions. And now Arlene’s African American beau has given her a tough ultimatum: introduce him to her family, or he’s gone. As she prepares to confront guilt, discrimination, and a decade of deception, Arlene is about to discover just how far she will go to find redemption—and love. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Fort Walton Beach, Florida, USA
Currently—lives in Decatur, Georgia

Jackson wrote Gods in Alabama after a journey up north. Much like her heroine, Arlene, she was born in the South, and according to her official biography, "raised by a tribe of wild fundamentalists."

Also like Arlene, Jackson eventually moved to Chicago, where she taught English at UIC. However, Arlene is no mere stand-in for the author. Although she is often asked if she based the character upon herself, Jackson is ready to admit that she does not have much in common with the promiscuous girl who may or may not be a murderer. In fact, when Arlene Fleet made her very first appearance in a short story titled "Little Dead Uglies," the narrator makes no bones about loathing her.

Nevertheless, Jackson became fascinated with the character. "She wouldn't leave me alone," she explained to readersroom.com. "She's such a TINY part of that story. A few sentences. But every time I would go back to work on that story, she would kinda glitter at me.... I KNEW she had a secret, and I knew she was something big, a novel waiting to happen. If only I had known what her secret was."

Jackson explored both the character and that secret in Gods in Alabama, and the results are a playful but dark dose of southern gothic humor. It also became Jackson's first published novel after two previous efforts failed to sell. Gods in Alabama more than makes up for any previous failures, though, as both a commercial and critical success and a No. 1 pick at Booksense.com.

Jackson's second novel, Between Georgia, once again finds the writer stirring up her southern heritage to create a sort of modern take on the infamous rivalry between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Once again, Jackson has crafted another unique and witty novel. Publishers Weekly has called Between, Georgia a "theatrical and well-paced Southern family drama" with "plenty of Southern sass."

In The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, her third novel, Jackson again reinvents the Girls-Raised-in-the-South novel. Quilt artist Laurel enjoys life with her husband and daughter in their serene Florida suburb—until the ghost of a drowned girl awakens Laurel and cracks the veneer of her charmed life. Library Journal referred to the novel as "life affirming."

• Jackson's friends have accused her of being "dead inside" because she isn't particularly fond of music. However, that did not stop her from fronting a band and singing PJ Harvey tunes when she was a graduate student.

• Before hitting pay dirt with Gods in Alabama, Jackson pursued a career in acting and even toured for a time with a dinner theater troupe.

• As well as being a writer of novels and short stories, Jackson has also made a name for herself on the theater circuit, penning such plays as Another Snow White and Screwing Lazarus.

Her own words:

I get depressed if I don't have a little animal or two clotting up the house. Right now we have gerbils that my kids named Hotshot and Snickers. I like to pretend I got them for the kids, but the truth is, I like the little blighters myself and am the one who plays with them and feeds them and such most often. We also have an enormous one-eyed Maine Coon cat named Schubert. I would fear for the rodents, except Schubert is entirely too massive to lumber to the top of the table where the gerbil house sits. This is a very low number of pets for me. My husband thinks it is PLENTY of pets, but I secretly want to add a dog. And a horse. And some lizards...maybe a little chinchilla.

I've always wanted to be a writer. My mother has a box full of books I wrote and published via the "Crayola and stapler" method.

I can't remember a time when I couldn't read—I've been doing it since before I had concrete memory. I learned accidentally before preschool by thieving my older brother's books and watching Sesame Street. I think that was one of the reason's I loved To Kill a Mockingbird so much. I first read it when I was a kid, and I identified strongly with Scout when she taught herself reading by sitting on Atticus's lap and looking at his newspapers.

When asked what book most influenced her career as a writer, here is her answer:

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. It's a note-perfect book. I think writers are people who process the world via story, and Harper Lee is the rarest kind of writer; she had something important to say, and she said it flawlessly in a single book. She set the bar on southern fiction. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Arlene Fleet, the refreshingly imperfect heroine of Jackson's frank, appealing debut, launches her story with a list of the title's deities: "high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus." The first god, also a date rapist by the name of Jim Beverly, she left dead in her hometown of Possett, Ala., but the last she embraces wholeheartedly when high school graduation allows her to flee the South, the murder and her slutty reputation for a new life in Chicago. Upon leaving home, Arlene makes a bargain with God, promising to forgo sex, lies and a return home if he keeps Jim's body hidden. After nine years in Chicago as a truth-telling celibate, an unexpected visitor from home (in search of Jim Beverly) leads her to believe that God is slipping on his end of the deal. As Arlene heads for the Deep South with her African-American boyfriend, Burr, in tow, her secrets unfold in unsurprising but satisfying flashbacks. Jackson brings levity to familiar themes with a spirited take on the clichés of redneck Southern living: the Wal-Mart culture, the subtle and overt racism and the indignant religion. The novel concludes with a final, dramatic disclosure, though the payoff isn't the plot twist but rather Jackson's genuine affection for the people and places of Dixie.
Publishers Weekly

Forget steel magnolias-meet titanium blossoms in Jackson's debut novel, a potent mix of humor, murder, and a dysfunctional Southern family. After high school, Arlene Fleet left tiny Possett, AL, for Chicago, vowing never to return. Despite pleas over the decade to come home, Arlene reconsiders only after a sudden visit from a former classmate. In chapters alternating between 1997 and 1985, the story of what prompted the murder of a football hero in Arlene's hometown unfolds tantalizingly. Arlene's not a saint (even if she has made three vows to God), but is she a murderer? Abrlene's boyfriend, Burr, is a saint—he's a black man willing to tolerate her bigoted relatives while also honoring her unusual pact with God (which doesn't, by the way, exclude swearing). While written for adults, this novel reminds us again that the teenage subculture is complex and powerful and that unholy acts may be committed in the name of love. Recommended for most collections. —Rebecca Kelm, Northern Kentucky Univ. Lib., Highland Heights
Library Journal

Arlene Fleet likes to make deals with God and play road-trip games. In this absorbing first novel, deals and games guide all the characters' actions, but the reader won't know the real deal or the name of the game until the last page.... Cleverly disguised as a leisurely paced southern novel, this debut rockets to the end, even as the plot turns back on itself, surprising characters and readers alike. Book clubs will enjoy this saucy tale, as will fans of southern fiction with a twist. —Kaite Mediatore

Date-rape and murder color the life of a high-school sophomore. Years later, she returns to her hometown to exorcise the demons, in a first novel based on delayed revelations. Sophomore Arlene Fleet made a deal with God. She would stop being a slut, never lie or fornicate again, and leave town for good after graduation. All He had to do was hide the body of the boy she'd killed. True to her word, Arlene left tiny Possett, Ala., in 1987 and hightailed it to Chicago, for Jim Beverly had indeed vanished without a trace. Ten years later, Arlene is still in Chicago, a teacher and a Ph.D. candidate with a steady boyfriend, Burr. Then Jim's old girlfriend, Rose Mae Lolley, materializes on Arlene's doorstep, and Arlene realizes she must return to Alabama for damage control. In chapters that from this point on alternate between the present and the past, Arlene is an engaging narrator whom we want to trust, though that can be difficult. Take the murder. Jim, the heartthrob quarterback, had behaved horribly to Clarice, Arlene's lovely cousin (the girls are as close as sisters). Arlene had pursued the sloppy-drunk Jim and knocked him out with his tequila bottle. Had one blow really killed him? Why wasn't his body ever found? Why has it taken ten years for Rosa Mae to get on the case? There are questions in the present, too. Because of her "no fornication" pledge to God, Arlene's two-year relationship with Burr has been touchy-feely but not sexual. Just how credible is that? Arlene and Burr drive down to Alabama to visit with Arlene's formidable Aunt Florence, who raised her after her father died and her mother sank into a permanent, pill-popping depression. The homecoming is frosty, for Burr is blackand Florence is a dyed-in-the-wool racist. But racial tensions take a back seat to a minute reconstruction of the past and a final Southern Gothic flourish. A likable new talent chained to a creaky old plot.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Who or what are the gods that the title refers to? Who are the gods in your hometown, workplace, or culture?

2. Arlene finds an imperfect but workable way to live around her family's deeply ingrained racism while maintaining the two most important relationships in her life. How satisfying is this compromise? Is it fair to Burr? To Florence? Should Arlene have asked for and expected more?

3. In what ways does Arlene's "deal with God" allow her to protect herself? How much of it is true penance and how much is a defense mechanism?

4. Arlene has painted a picture of Clarice as beautiful, pure, passive, and wholesome. How does idealizing Clarice influence Arlene's own behavior and sexuality?

5. Arlene's biological mother is almost a non-person in the book, and Arlene has surrounded herself with replacement mothers. Who are these replacements, and what aspects of mothering does she get from each of them?

6. The women in this novel generally tend to overpower the men, whether in conversation, romance, or physical altercations. Is this indicative of Southern society in general? What point might the author be making about gender relations in an outwardly traditional society?

7. The main character in this book is alternately known as Arlene and Lena. What are the distinguishing characteristics of Arlene? Of Lena? How do you think she would identify herself? By the end of the book, had she changed in your mind from one to the other, or had the two been integrated?

8. Arlene has clearly rehearsed a confession for years and years. How do you think her commitment to this retelling of the events of the past has shaped her current course of action?

9. Who is Jim Beverly? How do you reconcile the "pure-hearted, sole good man" Rose Mae Lolley has ever known with the scoundrel on Lipsmack Hill that fateful night?

10 What role does the Southern locale play in the novel? Could such a story take place in another region? Why or why not?

11. Forgiveness and atonement are two of the major themes in this novel. Who do you believe has done the most genuine atoning in this story? Who has the biggest sin to forgive?

12. Arlene baldly states that she is a game player, and she plays both literal and metaphorical games with Burr and the other characters throughout the novel. She is also, on some level, playing a game with the reader. How did you react to this? Do you think she played "fair"?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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