Title: Boys of Alabama
Author: Genevieve Hudson
Length: 301 Pages
Category: Southern Gothic, Coming of Age
At a Glance: Boys of Alabama packs an impactful emotional punch and succeeds in painting a none-too-flattering picture of the times and then reflects it back to its readers in striking ways.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: In this bewitching debut novel, a sensitive teen, newly arrived in Alabama, falls in love, questions his faith, and navigates a strange power. While his German parents don’t know what to make of a South pining for the past, shy Max thrives in the thick heat. Taken in by the football team, he learns how to catch a spiraling ball, how to point a gun, and how to hide his innermost secrets.
Max already expects some of the raucous behavior of his new, American friends—like their insatiable hunger for the fried and cheesy, and their locker room talk about girls. But he doesn’t expect the comradery—or how quickly he would be welcomed into their world of basement beer drinking. In his new canvas pants and thickening muscles, Max feels like he’s “playing dress-up.” That is until he meets Pan, the school “witch,” in Physics class: “Pan in his all black. Pan with his goth choker and the gel that made his hair go straight up.” Suddenly, Max feels seen, and the pair embarks on a consuming relationship: Max tells Pan about his supernatural powers, and Pan tells Max about the snake poison initiations of the local church. The boys, however, aren’t sure whose past is darker, and what is more frightening—their true selves, or staying true in Alabama.
Review: It’s been awhile since I’ve love-hated a book as much as I enjoyed love-hating this one. Contradictory, obviously, but you’ve only had to read Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt—or any other book that you loved hating, or hated loving, or didn’t even realize you liked it until you’d finished—to know precisely what I mean when I say that I wanted to chuck my kindle across the room and yet I couldn’t put this book down for want of seeing what the hell it was on about.
Delilah’s is a story in the Book of Judges, and while I would never presume that an author has used specific archetypes as metaphor on purpose, it’s difficult not to draw some connections to the biblical character and her betrayal of the Judge of Israel when reading this novel. Delilah, Alabama, is precisely the sort of place that would discover the source of a man’s strength, lop it off at that source, and then sacrifice him to the enemy.
The town’s very own Judge is the sort of spurious psychopomp who can, and does, use his own powers of deception to propagandize and weaponize his snake oil evangelism, and as I watched him wield this dogmatic fervor to very literally groom the story’s sixteen-year-old protagonist, Max, in ways that made me viscerally recoil (it was difficult not to perceive it with a Satan’s temptation of Christ element in their interactions), I applauded Genevieve Hudson for using this as well as other stereotypes—it’s all about God, guns, and football—to such skillful effect. At one point I made a review note that simply stated, “These people are vile,” a harsh and unfair generalization because, while I didn’t mean all of the characters—I related closely to Max’s mother, felt for Max, was intrigued by Pan (make connections to the Greek god at your pleasure), and wished some of the other minor characters had been more thoroughly explored—the stereotypes are such that I couldn’t contain my reaction to them, nor could I ignore my own ingrained biases. Those conventions do exist, though, not because all people but because enough people, and this combined with a romanticizing language that drew a picturesque landscape while populating it with the concepts of religious fervor, homophobia, violence, American excess, God and politics, God in politics, and throwing some of our most shameful history into the light of day, my savior complex dictated my yearning to rescue Max before he became irretrievably indoctrinated in this way of life.
Amongst its realism is a thread of magic that feeds the metaphorical aspects of the story, specifically in Max as resurrectionist. The Southern Gothic conventions are met with a horror that has nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with man’s inhumanity to man, what we teach boys about masculinity, how blithely certain words are thrown around in casual conversation, and how the urgency to fit in can be used to manipulate. Not noted should be content warnings for self-harm, rape, graphic violence, and the aforementioned homophobia, so readers should be cautious of those inclusions in the story before deciding to pick this one up. Additionally, Hudson’s choice to eliminate the use of quoted dialogue (i.e., there isn’t a quotation mark used in the entirety of the book) delivers Max’s journey as full-on narrative in which the author’s voice dictates rather than allowing me an immersive experience with Max telling his own story. It took a while to adapt to the delivery and is most definitely an acquired taste.
Boys of Alabama packs an impactful emotional punch and succeeds in painting a none-too-flattering picture of the times and then reflects it back to its readers in striking ways.
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