Anyone who came of age in the era of powder blue tuxedos, wide-wale corduroy bell bottoms and lava lamps (ah, the '70s), surely will feel an affinity with Daniel Musgrove, the dazed and confused narrator of Mark Childress' One Mississippi. In his first novel in eight years, the acclaimed author of Crazy in Alabama and Tender supplies a pitch-perfect evocation of that particular time and place as he expertly captures the double-edged hilarity and angst of adolescence.
Though born in Alabama, Daniel has spent much of his youth moving around the Midwest, where his father sells malathion and DDT. Now a high school junior, Daniel is being uprooted again, this time to the small town of Minor, just outside Jackson, Mississippi. In Daniel's eyes, moving to the South is nothing short of social and cultural death. Behind the curve, Minor has only just instituted the court-ordered integration of its public schools the black kids still sit in the back of the bus.
The first day of school, though, Daniel befriends Tim Cousins, a sharp-witted kid who shares his sense of the absurd. They soon spend all of their free time together and hours on the phone each night watching the same television shows and rehashing the goings-on at Minor High. They strategize about the Junior-Senior Prom (enter those blue tuxes), each agreeing to ask one of the homely, if good-natured Frillinger twins as his date. At the prom, the unexpected happens when it comes time to choose the queen. Winner Arnita Beecham has all the qualities for prom queen she's beautiful, smart and self-assured. But she is also black.
This small victory for civil rights will prove to have far-reaching consequences for Daniel and Tim when a Samaritan act on the way home from the dance results in an accident that lands Arnita in a coma. When she awakens, she can't remember what happened that night, and the boys stay quiet when the incident is pinned on football star, and school brute, Red Martin. Daniel's guilt gets the better of him, though, and when he shows up at Arnita's house to help out with some chores, her wise, if surly, mother cottons on to the truth and puts him to work. She doesn't count on Daniel and Arnita falling in love, though, and their interracial courtship is far from welcome in the bigoted little town. Adding to the complexity of the situation, the amnesiac Arnita now believes she is a white girl.
The person most bothered by the relationship is Tim, who musters the full force of his verbal vitriol and expert scheming to try to separate the young lovers. The reader can see, if Daniel can't, that Tim is fighting homosexual feelings, and it is a measure of Childress' talents as a writer that he can keep readers in the know and Daniel in the dark, despite the first-person narrative. But there is more than just teenage heartbreak in store as Tim becomes more and more withdrawn and descends into a despair that will drive him to violence and Daniel to previously undisclosed courage at novel's end. What begins as a deceptively comic evocation of teen torment turns undeniably dark, and it is a considerable achievement that Childress manages to combine the two. He blends subtle and not-so-subtle details to give a dead-on depiction of this small Southern town, where even the most idiosyncratic of characters (and there are plenty) remains believable because Childress, through the voice of Daniel, supplies enough humanity to make them real. For instance, a fey music director at the Baptist Church becomes a casualty of provincial attitudes and personal demons. And if Daniel's father first seems to be just an angry, mean-spirited man, we understand why when the company he has loyally served for 24 years lays him off.
Despite its breezy humor, One Mississippi percolates with perennial issues of racism, anti-gay attitudes and the changing face of American life, reminding us that simpler times were never quite as simple as we remember.
Robert Weibezahl grudgingly admits to having worn a brown (but not powder blue!) tux to his own high school prom in the '70s.