I hadn’t read a Childress since I started Writer Working, so I picked one off the shelf and dug in. Judging by the little time I spent in a couple of groups he led at Squaw Valley a few years back, he’s an engaging, iconoclastic kind of guy who enjoys writing and life. His big break came with the funny/savage Crazy in Alabama, which was made into a Hollywood hit of the same name with Melanie Griffith in the lead. He also got to do his own screenplay.
During group, he told the story of going back to his home town in Alabama to bury his grandmother. This was after the film’s release. After the funeral, he returned to the gravesite to sprinkle some Jack Daniel’s, a beverage she loved but which was forbidden at the formal ceremony. He ran into a couple of guys who worked at the cemetery and who recognized him as the Crazy in Alabama guy and wanted to talk about the film. He figured he was in for a nice literary discussion–a rarity in this town. He asked what they’d like to know. “Were those her real tits?” So much for art in Alabama.
One more Squaw Valley sidelight. His editor is a very nice southern lady named Anne, whom a couple of us took to calling Anne of Knopf because she is so approachable and seemed open to looking at our stuff and provoked dreams of being published by that distinguished house. I recall her referring to the Gore-Bush event of 2000 as “the voting,” refusing to term it an “election.” Good on her. She never published my stuff, though.
One Mississippi–great title–fooled me good, I have to say. It starts out as a trivial novel of small-town high school life. Funny and slight, sort of like the old Max Shulman books. I even wondered if I’d latched on to a very early Childress, before he got serious and weird. But no. The copyright date was 2006. So on I read, and Mark rewarded me greatly for my efforts.
A 15-year-old boy from Indiana moves with his weird family to a small town outside Jackson, Mississippi. It’s the first year of integration for this high school, so in addition to all the other adolescent adjustments he has to face, he’s saddled with the onus of being a yankee behind confederate lines with speech and attitudes about race and everything else that alienate him from almost everyone.
His savior is a fellow yankee who’s been around for a year and helps show him a few of the ropes as well as provide a friendly haven in a hostile environment. Then comes prom night, an ugly incident for which he and his friend share some blame, but which his friend compounds by insisting they keep their part in the event secret. For reasons he refuses to reveal. So the guilt and lies begin. And to grow in the most original and unexpected ways.
The moral mix in One Mississippi includes homosexuality, violence, taking responsibility, fraud, religion, and parenting, and the stakes are very high. As is the dramatic tension. Filled with humor and a cast of strongly-drawn characters, this is one very fine book. The more I write, the better it seems, so I’m going to send my little man jumping out of his chair.