Oh dear. Boys of Alabama is a lot. In Genevieve Hudson’s debut novel we are introduced to small-town Delilah, Alabama through the eyes of Max- the new kid in town. Max and his family just moved to rural America from urban Germany, and we leap into the culture shock with them. Delilah has two religions: Christianity and football- and the two form a dangerous communion.
Max is sensitive, quiet, and gay. He can also bring dead things back to life; one touch and wilted flowers bloom. One touch and roadkill stands up and walks away unharmed. Max can save the dead, but he cannot save himself. He’s bombarded by the temptation of power. He’s pulled into the football team because he’s fast. The boys welcome him with open arms, flowing alcohol, and the promise of being “saved”. They call him a Nazi and he takes it in stride. They torture animals and he remains quiet; disgusted but enthralled. The “local witch”, Pan, a boy in black lipstick pulls Max into his world as well; a world of spells, stones, luck, and sex. Pan’s power over Max may not be magic, but it is certainly real. Pan pushes and pulls Max, as do the other kids in his private high school. He’s also pushed, pulled, and overpowered by The Judge; a local born-again lawman who is running for Governor. He is going to “save Alabama” and Max along with it. His son plays football with Max. His son plays many games with many other kids. The Judge plays games as well; he lives for football, breathes Jesus, wrestles snakes, and drinks poison.
There is a lot to work with here, and Hudson paints a vivid and lurid picture of teenage temptation. Often though, things get too lurid for my taste. Animals and people are tortured. Death and decay are described in detail. Sex is frequent and furious between teenage partners; I felt like a creep listening in on their communions. Hudson gives a lot of detail about the goings on of the bodies of these teens (read: children). There is also a smattering of coercive sex and at least one rape- reader be warned. I have seen this listed in some places as “YA”, but just because the characters are young doesn’t mean that this book is going to be right for all Young Adults. I’m sure I would have seen it as a magical tome as a young teen, but as an adult I feel like a voyeur.
Hudson has a way with language, and her prose is startling and sublime. As uncomfortable as I was throughout, I never wanted to give up. I had to know what was lurking in the next pond, what was waiting in the next cotton field- who was going to hurt what next. She touches on many themes: race, class, religion, sexuality, conformity- but not all of them hit with the same depth. I wanted more about the Black players on the team; kids who were worshiped on the field and forced to take tours of Confederate statues during the school day. I wanted more about the dirt poor kids who were plied with alcohol and promises of salvation, but left alone to be caretakers to themselves.
Boys of Alabama worships at the altar of pain, but it is clear that some people’s pain is more worthy than others.