In the 21 years they've been husband and wife, Dennis and Vicki Covington have been through plenty alcoholism, depression, infertility. You could say theirs has not been a storybook marriage. Dennis is a journalist and author of the 1995 National Book Award finalist Salvation on Sand Mountain; Vicki is the author of four novels, including The Last Hotel for Women. In Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage, alternating between her point of view and his, the Covingtons expose many dark elements of their marriage, including myriad infidelities. Cleaving is more, though, than a story of men and women behaving badly. With the inclusion of insightful details, the Covingtons put human faces to their dalliances: I met him in parking lots mostly, Vicki writes of one man with whom she had an affair. I'd get in his car. Sometimes he'd have starched white shirts from the cleaner's hanging in the back seat, and they mesmerized me. I didn't know a man other than my dad who wore things like this. The Covingtons include stories that have little to do with their marriage which, ironically, are some of the most interesting. In graduate school Dennis took a class from author Raymond Carver, and the two used to meet for drinks. As a child, Vicki was afraid of the dark, people who wore glasses, and accidentally shouting obscenities in church. The Covingtons also write at length about spirituality their dedication to their Baptist church on Birmingham's Southside, and even a dalliance with the snake-handling, fundamentalist congregations Dennis wrote about in Salvation on Sand Mountain. Dennis has worked as a journalist in Central America and instigates missions with Vicki, their two daughters, and members of their church to drill wells in impoverished areas of El Salvador. Through their faith and missionary work, the couple searches for meaning and redemption in their complicated lives. Some will be offended by the Covingtons' behavior; some might find them maddeningly unapologetic. Yet Cleaving, unfailingly honest, will strike a chord with anyone who's ever marveled that no matter how imperfect and mismanaged, life and, in their case, marriage does go on.
Rosalind S. Fournier is managing editor of Birmingham magazine.