In Mark Childress’s latest novel, Georgia Bottoms, his eponymous heroine is a mash-up of Southern women from popular culture, but that is no reason not to read it.
About a third of the way through Mark Childress’s latest novel Georgia Bottoms, his eponymous heroine rushes about, adhering with military-like discipline and efficiency to a “crisply annotated timing chart” as she prepares for the social event of the year in tiny Six Points, Alabama – her annual September luncheon. After some effort, Georgia’s pièce de résistance – a whole crimson lobster surrounded by an assortment of votives filled with her Lobster Scallion Shooters – is complete. She stands back to admire her work, and Childress tells us everything we need to know about who she is:
“Anyone looking at the lobster display would think she was wealthy all right. She liked that – she had restored a bit of cachet to the Bottoms family. She knew it was shallow, but to Georgia, appearances really were everything.”
Georgia Bottoms works best on its surface. Georgia, the most dynamic woman in town, juggles cartoonish lovers – a Six Points influential for each day of the week except Monday – in an effort to keep afloat financially. She’s not exactly a prostitute, but her lovers are so charmed by her that they are regularly compelled to leave a little something for the effort after their evening romps. This is all a big secret of course and, in such a tiny town, this fact alone feels like a recipe for disaster. But in addition to her menagerie of local men, Georgia is also saddled with an alcoholic ne’er-do-well brother, a racist mother teetering on the brink of dementia, and a secret past that comes calling about halfway through the book.
In Georgia, Childress gives us a mash-up of Southern women from popular culture. She’s as dishy as Annie Savoy and as cunning and resourceful as Reggie Love. Throw in Idgie Threadgood’s moxie, add the entertaining chops of Paula Deen, and there she is. Childress even throws Georgia into Scarlett O’Hara’s dress late in the novel for good measure. She does possess a few traits that make her unique from the rest, though. For example, Georgia likes the air-conditioning set to “arctic.” Presumably, this is to cool her libido, which seems to have a default setting of “nuclear.” She also has a weird fascination with ants, whose behavior becomes the grid on which she interprets the world in which she lives.
The opening scene of the novel, where Georgia narrowly averts being outed by the town’s minister as his mistress during a sermon, is our first hint that Georgia’s well-kept world is about to unravel. She handles this particular incident with a combination of quick-witted resourcefulness and some good acting, but this is the last time she comes out on top. From here on out, Georgia’s life is an absolute yard sale.
Georgia’s September luncheon this particular year, 2001, happens to fall on the eleventh. Preoccupied by her folding tables and buckets of ice and prosciutto-wrapped figs, Georgia is the last to know about the attacks. When she finally catches on that the rerun of Towering Inferno her mother is watching in theliving room is actually a live broadcast, Georgia’s response is provincial. She’s only affected because her party is spoiled.
“Georgia hoped her face didn’t look as crushed and disappointed as she felt – or if it did, she hoped the others read her expression as concern for the awful events, not the massively self-centered disappointment it really was.”
Incorporating 9/11 into the plot feels at odds with the tone of the book. Here, it appears as a mere incident, a kind of hiccup, rather than the civic thunderclap it was. Childress, the seasoned author of Crazy in Alabama, which was turned into a film starring Melanie Griffith, certainly knows this. He also knows that Georgia’s reaction to the attacks is alien from what the rest of us felt on that day. Georgia suffers as a character because Childress never explains why this is so. It’s almost impossible to consider her representative of an actual human being from this point on.
There are other issues that Childress sniffs at that might have lent the story more weight. Georgia, who’s been raised by a bigot in a white Southern town, has various ties to the black community – one of which is quite deep – and is clearly not in the least bit racist. What makes Georgia different from the rest is anyone’s guess. Georgia’s best friend Krystal is gay, and she falls in love with Georgia. Georgia isn’t aware of this until the end of the novel, but when the two are finally about to sit down to talk about it, Childress conveniently sends Krystal out of town.
We can only chalk this up to laziness on Childress’s part, but lazy writing can sometimes make for the kind of enjoyable, lazy reads that are perfect for a summer day or soaking in the tub. Though Georgia Bottoms is by no means a serious book, the good in the novel outweighs the bad just enough to make you read on to watch the wheels come off.