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BOOK REVIEW : CRAZY IN ALABAMA by Mark Childress , Putnam, $22.95, 389 pages : A Bit Too Much of Too Many Good Things

July 29, 1993|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

A recent Zagat guide rated one New York restaurant quite highly while reporting a caveat or two--notably, a letter from a patron who suggested that each dish seemed to have one condiment too many.

Mark Childress's seriocomic entertainment has one or two plots too many, and each plot has one or two twists too many.

It is a story of a downtrodden rural Alabama housewife who breaks out and blazes a trail of sexy outlawry all the way to Hollywood; of racial brutality and civil rights heroism back home--Martin Luther King Jr. and George Wallace both make appearances--and of a 12-year-old boy who learns courage and wisdom from all this. You could say it has one or two genres too many. "To Kill a Mockingbird" meets "Thelma and Louise," and then some.

No doubt, the book is sometimes a mess, yet it has a way of putting us in a state of pleasure. It hustles us less than comic-spectacular novels and films tend to do, and beguiles us more. "Crazy in Alabama," combed out a little, might make a splashy and entertaining movie, but it is safe to say that the movie would be poorer than the book. If you duck a number of plot fragments rocketing by, you come upon an occasional stillness. Some of the extravagance and the humor is imposed on the characters, yet quite a bit seems to grow naturally out of them.

Outlining the plot, or plots, hardly makes the case. Lucille turns up at her mother's house with her six children in tow. She announces that she is leaving them temporarily to go to Los Angeles to meet an agent who wrote after receiving her picture.

When Meemaw, her mother, proves reluctant--she is already taking care of two orphan nephews including Peejoe, the 12-year-old narrator--Lucille pops open a Tupperware lettuce crisper. Inside is the head of her husband, Chester, who abused her for 15 years and no longer will.

He will mumble at her, though. Lucille takes crisper and Chester's still-talking head along for company as she goes on the road in a stolen car.

She has sex with a pursuing New Mexico highway cop then handcuffs him to the steering wheel, wins a small fortune in Las Vegas, and lands a promising bit-part on "The Beverly Hillbillies." Each segment of her parabolic trip out and hand-cuffed return intercuts with what is going on back in Alabama.

The loving but overwhelmed Meemaw turns Peejoe and his brother over to their Uncle Dove, coroner and undertaker at Industry--formerly Snubbville--the county seat.

Uncle Dove is a kind and decent man who reluctantly finds himself dragged into standing up for the county's black residents. He disapproves of their modest civil-rights marches but he can't abide their lethal abuse at the hands of a murderous sheriff and his cronies. Some of the dragging-in is done by Peejoe, who tells of his own budding awareness of injustice, and of the killings and arson that end up smashing his uncle's life.

It would seem impossible to link up the bouncy slapstick, the black-humor road trip, the civil-rights exploits, the grisly violence and Peejoe's initiation into the world. Childress doesn't really link them up, but he manages far better than might be expected. He has a good deal on his side.

For one thing, he can tell a story even when he's telling too many at the same time. Lucille's blithe improvisations, the feints and oratory of black-freedom and white-supremacist rallies, Dove's troubled wrestling with his circumstances, and the nightmarish pain when Peejoe almost loses an eye in an accident come across freshly and with a whole varied range of command.

Lucille is by turns a flake, a warrior, a sexpot, and out of her mind. She is both real and absurd. There is a lot that is too much in her advent--winning two jackpots, instantly conquering the Hollywood crowd, her orgasms--yet what ought to be the biggest too much--isn't.

None of the characters is entirely original, not even Lucille. Yet Dove, the hesitantly decent Southerner, and Nehemiah, his black fellow-undertaker who grows into valiant leadership, and the vicious but believable sheriff, and Peejoe, the questioning child, are all considerably more than stereotypes. Each has moments of going his own way. In Childress's grab-bag, the wrappings are often better than the prizes, but sometimes the prizes are better.

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