Southern literature is filled with characters like the ones who inhabit Crazy in Alabama. Anyone who has ever lived in the South has encountered one or two of the real-life prototypes at one time or another. Anyone born in the South automatically thinks that writers are describing his or her friends and family.

Everyone knows who they are: the reluctant hero (especially in the area of race relations); the young boy or girl with the old soul who helps lead the way to goodness and redemption; the pot-bellied, redneck villain; the family matriarch; and last, but certainly not least, the beautiful heroine, who, despite being somewhat crazy (and maybe a little evil, although Lord don't you know she only did evil things because she was forced into it by an alcoholic man), manages to win the reader's love and admiration.

Mark Childress's Crazy in Alabama has all those characters -- and plenty more to spare. Peejoe Bullis is the 12-year-old narrator of the story (set in 1965), who hears more than he wants to hear about marital relations from his Aunt Lucille, who has fed her husband rat poison and severed his head because he wouldn't allow her to audition for a part in the Beverly Hillbillies. (Look, she says, yanking his head out of a large Tupperware container, it's your Uncle Chester.)

When Aunt Lucille takes off for Hollywood, carrying her husband's head with her as a good luck charm, Peejoe and his older brother Wiley are sent packing to live with Lucille's brother, Uncle Dove, a mortician who also serves as the county coroner.

As Lucille heads west in a stolen Cadillac, a fully loaded pistol in her purse, Peejoe becomes embroiled in a civil rights demonstration that ultimately brings Martin Luther King Jr. and Alabama Governor George Wallace to town. As Peejoe sides with the civil rights demonstrators, Aunt Lucille gets her big break on the Beverly Hillbillies.

Crazy in Alabama has been made into a motion picture that will be released in early October. It co-stars Melanie Griffith, who seems absolutely perfect for the role of the dizzy-but-lovable Lucille. The screenplay was written by the author (a rarity in Hollywood), so it almost certainly will remain true to the book.

Alabama-born Mark Childress has written a flawless novel. It is almost impossible to find a misstep anywhere in the 434-page book. His sparse prose has the energy and punch of a Crimson Tide running back.

Equally impressive is the author's technique of merging the Southern literary tradition with the sensibilities of a nonfiction expose. His use of actual historical figures and events gives the story a real sense of believability.

Originally published in 1993, Crazy in Alabama has just been re-issued as a paperback to coincide with the release of the movie. This reviewer somehow missed the book the first time around, but is grateful he was given a second chance to read it.

Is it possible to laugh at murder?

You'd better read this book before you answer that question.

Mississippi-born James L. Dickerson's most recent book is Last Suppers: If the World Ended Tomorrow, What Would Be Your Last Meal? (Lebhar-Friedman Books).

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