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Mark Childress Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Monroeville, Alabama, 1957. Education: Attended Louisiana State University, Shreveport, 1974-75; University of Alabama, 1974-78. Career: Writer, Birmingham News, Birmingham, Alabama, 1977-80; features editor, Southern Living, Birmingham, Alabama, 1980-84; regional editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1984-85. Agent: Frederick Hill Associates, 1842 Union Street, San Francisco, California 94123, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A World Made of Fire. New York, Knopf, 1984.

V for Victor. New York, Knopf, 1984.

Tender. New York, Harmony Books, 1990.

Crazy in Alabama. New York, Putnam, 1993.

Gone for Good. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Fiction (for children)

Joshua and Bigtooth. Boston, Little, Brown, 1992.

Joshua and the Big Bad Blue Crabs. Boston, Little, Brown, 1996.

Henry Bobbity Is Missing and It Is All Billy Bobbity's Fault! Birmingham, Alabama, Crane Hill Publishers, 1996.

Plays

Screenplays:

Crazy in Alabama. Columbia Pictures, 1999.

* * *

Mark Childress's five novels constitute one of the most interesting bodies of work by a contemporary Southern author. Born in Monroeville, Alabama, hometown of Harper Lee and childhood home of Truman Capote, Childress was positioned literally from birth within a specific literary tradition. However, his novels appear far more influenced by the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the compulsively readable narratives of Stephen King (who has enthusiastically endorsed Childress's work) than by William Faulkner or Eudora Welty. Although three of his five novels are set in his native Alabama, and all of his books demonstrate intimate knowledge of the Southern landscape and Southern mores, Childress seems most preoccupied with two basic themes: the perennial story of alienated youth coming to terms (or not) with their parents, and the more contemporary problem of such youths' desire for media stardom, and the public's willingness to provide it, often at a terrible cost.

Childress's first novel, A World Made of Fire, set in rural Alabama in the first two decades of the twentieth century, tells the story of Stella and her brother Jacko, survivors of a house fire that destroyed their home and family. While Stella struggles to raise her brother with the help of neighbors, Jacko, crippled by polio, begins to display an ability to influence supernaturally the world around him, an ability encouraged by a mysterious old African-American woman named Brown Mary. When Jacko is blamed for a polio epidemic and threatened by the townspeople, his powers save him and punish the guilty, but, by novel's end, it is unclear if his magical relationship with fire will be a force for good or evil. The fantastic elements of the book are convincingly integrated into the narrative, but the book as a whole falters under a melodramatic plot and an overly earnest lyricism. Published when the author was twenty-seven, A World Made of Fire is very much a first novel by a talented and ambitious young author not yet fully in control of his materials.

Childress's next novel, V for Victor, is an impressive leap forward to the spare and controlled narrative skills that mark his later novels. Victor is a teenager forced by a domineering father to care for his dying grandmother on a remote island in Mobile Bay during World War II. The first third of the novel promises a carefully considered coming-of-age story as Victor cares for his grandmother and deals with his brutally abusive father. However, once Victor escapes his father and hooks up with Butch, an outlaw island boy, the novel takes an abrupt turn into the territory of boys' adventure novels. Victor and Butch are very much Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, with the former's romanticized notions of grand adventure and the latter's refusal to be "civilized," but they are also the Hardy Boys as they become embroiled in a dangerous escapade featuring Nazi spies, submarines, and a variety of explosions. However, V for Victor is not a simple adventure story. Victor and Butch operate within the shadow of dysfunctional families and an unforgiving landscape; by the end of the novel, Victor is cured of his romantic longings.

In a 1994 interview, Childress stated that his third novel, Tender, was written as a novel about Elvis Presley but then rewritten because of the publisher's lawyers' fears of legal challenges from the Presley estate. The result is a roman a clef whose protagonist, Leroy Kirby of Tupelo, Mississippi, rises to unprecedented fame as a rock and roll singer in the 1950s. Childress's longest novel to date is also his most tightly focused, as Kirby's life and career undergo their inevitable rise and fall. The very familiarity of the Presley story enables Childress to spend valuable time with his characters. Kirby's conflicted relationship with his overbearing mother and ineffectual father is memorably detailed, and his ongoing conversation with his dead twin brother yields additional insights into Kirby's character while effectively displaying Childress's tendency toward the fantastic. Additionally, Childress displays both great knowledge of the popular music scene of the 1950s and uncanny insight into the dynamics of fame and the overpowering need of the Leroy Kirbys of the world to not merely rise above their circumstances, but utterly transcend them.

Although quite different in terms of plot and tone from Childress's other novels, Crazy in Alabama, ties in closely to many aspects of the author's earlier books. Like Victor, young Peejoe suspects there must be something beyond the confines of south Alabama; like Leroy Kirby, Peejoe's aunt Lucille will settle for nothing less than show business stardom as an escape from the dismal life of a rural housewife. However, Peejoe's adventure of initiation occurs when he is caught up in the struggles and tragedies of the civil rights movement, while Lucille makes her escape by murdering her oppressive husband and hitting the road for Hollywood, where she realizes her dream of fame with an appearance on the television show The Beverly Hillbillies.

It is easy to see why Crazy in Alabama is Childress's most commercially successful novel to date. In Peejoe's story, Childress finally touches base with his townspeople Lee and Capote through a richly evocative portrait of a small Alabama town and an unflinching examination of racism within that town. In Lucille's story, Childress shows a genuine gift for black comedy as Lucille does whatever is necessary to get what she wants, and reaffirms his penchant for the fantastic as Lucille carries on an ongoing conversation with her husband's severed head, which she carries with her in a sealed Tupperware bowl. Childress makes his case for linking the two stories in a single comment from Lucille: "Like them [African-Americans], she had done something radical to set herself free." Whether such a connection is reasonable or justified is open to debate.

In his most recent novel, Gone for Good, Childress continues his examination of the risk of celebrity while offering his most overt fantasy since A World Made of Fire. When 1970s folk-rock star Ben "Superman" Willis crashes his plane on an island off the coast of Central America, he finds himself in a paradise that is, on the one hand, a refuge for celebrities who have "disappeared" from the world (Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Hoffa), and, on the other hand, a kind of prison run by a mysterious figure known as "the Magician" and from which there is no escape. As Willis acclimates to his life on the island and ponders his life's mistakes and his ambivalence about his own fame, he becomes privy to some of the island's magic (at one point, "Superman" literally flies) and leads the island's natives in a revolt against the Magician. Back in the "real" world, Willis's teenaged son makes a dangerous journey to find his lost father. The novel is almost a summary of Childress's ongoing concerns. Once again, a young man comes of age by placing himself in danger; once again, Childress conveys the glories and pitfalls of show business performance in extraordinarily convincing detail; once again, fantastic events suggest that, as Willis realizes, "The things we think we know are just stories we have been told. They are not necessarily true." Like the earlier V for Victor, Gone for Good moves from introspection to violent action, in this case with somewhat mixed results; the frantic combat and confrontation in the last third of the novel is less satisfying than the novel's earlier, quieter surreal speculations.

From his second novel on, Mark Childress has proven to be one of the best pure storytellers of his generation. His books have sometimes displayed a problematic tendency toward trying to fit two dissimilar stories into a single novel; in this regard, Tender is arguably his most successfully realized work to date. However, Childress remains a tremendously talented writer who deserves great praise for his willingness to take chances and his insistence on challenging the expectations many readers bring to the work of Southern writers. We may hope that Childress, still in his early forties, will continue to entertain and challenge us for many books to come.

—F. Brett Cox

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