Southern heroines rarely leap off the page as full of life and trouble as Arlene Fleet, the headstrong protagonist and erstwhile alter ego of young Atlanta writer Joshilyn Jackson, whose marvelous debut, gods in Alabama, is fixing to slap some sense into modern Southern fiction. Before we've even finished the first page of this most unladylike romp through the Southern gothic hymnal, we learn that Arlene left podunk Possett, Alabama, a dozen years earlier after secretly murdering the high-school quarterback and kicking his body deep into the kudzu. What's more, we're already inexplicably cheering her on. Shouldn't someone at least ask, Lord, what's gotten into that girl?
Well, the Lord truly works in mysterious ways in Arlene's case. When she headed to Chicago for college, she made a pact with the Man Upstairs: in exchange for keeping Jim Beverly's body from the light of day, she vowed to neither lie, engage in sex outside of marriage, nor return to Possett, which she calls "the fourth rack of hell." But when Jim's old girlfriend Rose Mae Lolly shows up in Chicago looking for answers, Arlene figures all bets are off and reluctantly returns to Possett, where she reunites with her loving, racist Aunt Florence and introduces everyone to her very black Yankee boyfriend Burr.
Sweet Home Alabama meets Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as Arlene stumbles toward a redemption that even Rhett and Scarlett would never have imagined. Foulmouthed and hilariously frank, gods in Alabama is just the shot of sour to counter the diabetic-coma-inducing sweetness that seems to have overtaken Southern literature lately. Seekers of nostalgia should try the next book on the left.
It is both surprising and charming to find that Jackson, a happily married 30-something mother of two, still fumbles the one question she'll face ad nauseum this year.
"The first thing my editor asked was, so, how much of you is in Arlene? REALLY NOT A LOT!" she recalls by phone from Atlanta, with extended laughter. "Sure, OK, for the record, if we're doing bedpost notches, Arlene wins hands-down, she wins on an Olympic level, I'm pleased to say. She lives a lot more intensely than I do, and I hope, Lord, that I make better choices. I love Arlene. I think she has a good heart and she's funny and she's smart. I wouldn't want to be her, but I'd hang out with her."
In fact, Jackson was something of the anti-Arlene in high school, being raised, as she puts it, "by a tribe of wild fundamentalists."
"I was the nicest girl. I was a missionary, I went to Guyana with my church group and I dated nice boys. I was good; I shone with the white light of goodness," she says. "Now college was a different story. If I hit an Arlene phase, it was in college."
Jackson caught the theater bug and pursued it, first at the University of West Florida, then at other Southern campuses. "If there was a college in the Southeast, honey, I stopped there," she says. "It was a checkered career path." She ultimately dropped out to pursue acting. She worked in regional repertory and dinner theater before returning to Georgia State, where she graduated with honors in English.
Jackson fell in love with her best friend Scott, a fellow theater major, and followed him to Chicago, where he worked in trade show production. Six years later, the couple returned to the Atlanta area, where they live now and are raising their seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.
According to Jackson, Arlene and Burr first appeared as minor characters in a short story eight years ago. The author loved the dynamic between the two and used it to explore modern relationships in gods in Alabama. Burr's low-key love for his high-strung Southern belle helps endear them both to readers.
"I had a few Jane Austen moments; like Emma, I'm writing a heroine that nobody but me will love. But you know why I think Arlene is eventually a sympathetic character? I think a lot of it is Burr. She's a consummate bull****-er and she chooses to love the one guy who always sees through her. I think that says a lot about her, that she wants to be seen through; she wants honesty, she wants goodness, she's yearning for goodness. I think that ultimately makes her a really likable person, because we all do crappy things. It's the people who keep trying to choose what is right that you like. We all screw up."
The mixed-race couple enabled Jackson to explore racial friction in the New South. Her conclusion: get over it. "When you're dealing with racism in the South, my tolerance policy is, if you're 80 years old and you're a racist, what are you gonna do? OK, I'm sorry. And then the younger you get, the less tolerant I am about it, to where if you're my age or younger, I can't stomach it. It's like, what's wrong with you? I grew up like you grew up. This is not mandatory at this point."
"The biggest problem I had with that book was cowardice. The first draft, I had made some choices, I had backed away from some things that I thought were maybe too graphic or too explicit; 'unladylike' is a good word. And I remember I came home and there was this message on my machine, yelling at me: 'This is almost such a good book! You coward! Get them fornicating! Quit being such a lady! You must not be so afraid!' And I knew she was right. Arlene's looking for redemption, and the farther away you go, the more you have to say about getting back to where you want to be. If you get redeemed for stealing a piece of penny candy, it doesn't really mean very much."
The next time a little sin is required for the sake of literature, rest assured: in the words of the late, great Tammy Wynette, this good girl is gonna go bad.
Jay MacDonald writes from Oxford, Mississippi.