August 26, 2011

Review: Georgia Bottoms by Mark Childress

Georgia Bottoms: A Novel

Georgia Bottoms is known in her small community of Six Points, Alabama, as a beautiful, well-to-do, and devoutly Baptist Southern belle.

Nobody realizes that the family fortune has long since disappeared, and a determinedly single woman like Georgia needs an alternative, and discreet, means of income. In Georgia's case it is six well-heeled lovers-one for each day of the week, with Mondays off-none of whom knows about the others.

But when the married preacher who has been coming to call (Saturdays) decides to confess their affair in front of the whole congregation, Georgia must take drastic measures to stop him. In GEORGIA BOTTOMS, Mark Childress proves once again his unmistakable skill for combining the hilarious and the absurd to reveal the inner workings of the rebellious human heart.

Georgia Bottoms has problems. The family fortune is a myth, her mother is slowly succumbing to an Alzheimer's like fog, her brother is a drunk and a petty thief, and her carefully constructed house of adultery cards is starting to tumble down. To top it all off, her illegitimate half African-American son has come back into her life.  Did I mention that her best friend (and female mayor of the quaint little town of Six Points) is in love with her? What's a Southern belle to do?

I'd heard how funny Childress' books were, so I picked this up at the library; what a disappointment. For me, there were very few laughs in 'Georgia Bottoms', and no heart at all. Childress definitely has ability--his dialogue is well done, and the story does eventually come to a sort of believable end. The problem is that he takes a very round about way of getting there. That's normally not an issue for me (two of my favorites are John Irving and Stephen King, and Lord knows they go all Dickens at a drop of a hat), but the byways in Georgia Bottoms aren't all that interesting, not do they lead naturally to the ending. To tell the truth, it looks like Childress was forcing 'wackiness' in place of actual story. I got frustrated by the meandering side stories because they seemed to be mainly in the service of time worn cliches about the South and Southerners, rather than actually enhancing the story. Childress is no Flannery O'Connor (as he is dubiously compared to on a jacket blurb), no Jan Karon--hell, he's no Fanny Flagg. 

In Georgia Bottoms, he's created one of the least likable characters I've ever read: she's self-absorbed, self-centered, a hypocrite, and an unabashed racist (though she'd deny both of the last to the death). Her world is... unappealing. I 'get' that perhaps that's something that's supposed to make the reader feel wise--the fact that we see these things about Georgia and she doesn't. David Nicholls does the same thing with his main character, Brian, in the fine 'Starter for 10'. The difference between Georgia and Brian, though, is that we can see ourselves within Brian (even while seeing what a prat he can be); there is no such point of connection with Georgia.

I give this two coffee cups out of five--it was ok--because I can see that Childress really does have talent. I'll definitely try another one of his novels, to see if he got it 'right' in another story. Georgia Bottoms is not unstomachable... but I wouldn't read it again.


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