Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Guilty Pleasure Without the Guilt: Reflections on Mark Childress's Georgia Bottoms

In my last blog post on Ron Carlson’s Five Skies, I talked about intentionally slow-paced novels, but for those of you hankering after, well, a change of pace, this week’s novel is for you: Georgia Bottoms by Mark Childress, a book that reads like a guilty pleasure and yet, from a craft standpoint, is not at all “guilty.”  In other words, if you want a fun book to read this summer that nevertheless stands well above mass-market beach reading, Georgia Bottoms is for you.

Primarily the charm of titular Georgia propels the reader through the book.  She is at once bold and lady-like, selfish and touchingly full of care for her disintegrating family.  But part of what Childress so skillfully pulls off is a kind of effortless narrative style that picks up Georgia’s own voice.  It isn’t exactly free indirect discourse, but it does have an intimate quality that puts you immediately on Georgia’s side, in Georgia’s head, and almost makes you feel as if you were chatting with her while lounging on a great Southern porch.  Here’s a perfect example from page one:

  • The only way to survive summer in Alabama was to sit yourself down sometime in April and hold still until October.  Or get out of Alabama entirely.  Or follow the rest of   the South into the embrace of the one true religion—A/C—with which the First Baptist and most of Six Points were still, at this late date, unblessed.

This close third person continues with Georgia the whole book so that the finished product does in fact live up to John Gardner’s ideal of fiction, the “continuous waking dream.”  All the characters are vividly realized; the scenes do not drag on too long; neither are they too short.  You begin in the South with Georgia Bottoms and end in the South with Georgia Bottoms and never once feel stagnant.

Like most (all?) Southern literature, Georgia Bottoms is peopled with colorful characters.  But where too many contemporary authors like to lay on the quirks of their characters simply to make them “interesting,” Childress’s characters appear in the narrative as they are without Childress ever having to step back and intentionally add information.  Their quirkiness rises from them organically through well-placed detail and revealing action, never through compulsory characterization or characterization for the mere point of being cute or clever. 

You may be wondering by now why I haven’t given a clearer sense of the plot.  In truth, there is such fun in learning about Georgia’s character—who she is and the secrets she so painstakingly keeps—that to give away any part of it would be to diminish the pleasure of the book. 

That said, I do have to give a mini spoiler in recounting the next aspect I admired, so if you are honestly planning to read the book, you should skip what I’m about to say.  So many twenty-first century writers have dealt directly with September 11, and while I understand the impact and implications of the event, I have often felt that fiction would do better to portray the altered fabric of life following September 11 than to deal with the event in a direct and obligatory-feeling way, as too many books do.  Georgia Bottoms offers the truest glimpse of how September 11 felt to many Americans that I have seen in most fiction.  Georgia, in far-off Alabama, reacts to the news by wanting to do something charitable.  On some level, she understands the magnitude of the event and her compassion for the lives lost is behind her urge towards charity.  But when at last she cries over 9/11, the crying is provoked more by the inconvenience the day has caused her than it is by the actual historic event. She is not a bad person for this, just an average one, for who among us can actually feel for the great tragedies of history more than we feel for the individual tragedies that beset our own life?

Georgia Bottoms will surprise you like that.  Just when you think the reading is all fun and pleasurable, there are pinpricks of truth that remind you there is, in fact, more to life than being bold and colorful and dynamic.  And yet, the book never veers too far in that direction.  Consider this passage, which ends with my favorite sentence of the entire book:
  • Through the years, Georgia had become very good at doing whatever she had to do.  Oh yes.  She had learned to grit her teeth, close her eyes, and get through it.  She was a strong woman with powerful skills of denial and repression.

Denial and repression as powerful skills?  This at once makes me laugh and opens a whole vein of exploration.  Is this skill set unique to women, as Georgia’s larger-than-life quality can convince you it just might be?  What does this mean about our society that denial and repression help us to survive it?  Childress doesn’t go that far in his questioning, but instead leaves his readers with the ironic, almost tongue-in-cheek humor that is well in line with the book as a whole.  He also leaves us with an ending that screams sequel; I’ll be in line for it.

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