Hit and Run
By Mark Childress
Little, Brown. 385 pp. $24.99
Mark Childress's new novel, One Mississippi , opens with a scene of goofy adolescent thrill-seeking, the perfect metaphor for a teenager's sublime certainty that anything worth having will be mind-altering, dangerous to procure and, best of all, free. A mosquito truck is prowling the streets of an Indiana neighborhood, and behind it travels a group of teenage boys on bicycles, "breathing the sweet-smelling clouds of DDT because we'd heard it would get you high." Fifteen-year-old Daniel Musgrove peels off from the pack when he spies his father's car coming home ominously early on a Thursday afternoon. From that moment on, the life experience pursued by innocent Daniel, traveling hopefully in the wake of the mosquito truck, will become a mushroom cloud of hideously real peril. Pity poor Daniel, pedaling along in Indiana, trying to get high. He's about to move to Mississippi, where he will have to grow up much faster than he could ever have imagined.
One Mississippi is a coming-of-age story, and it employs many of the usual vehicles for carrying a boy into manhood: the beautiful girl, the troubled best friend, the drama of crimes and misdemeanors that bears the hero abruptly onto the harshly lit stage of adult consequence. Childress, who has become a venerated chronicler of life in the American South -- many readers will know him from Crazy in Alabama , which was made into a movie starring Melanie Griffith -- both evokes the swampy, backward, dark side of the gothic Deep South in One Mississippi , and deploys the friendlier chestnuts of Southern fiction: the eccentrics, the camp humor, the vulnerability and sincerity of well-intentioned, unsophisticated people. Childress works it all in here: the heat, the kudzu, the UFO sightings, simmering racial animosity, appalling Baptist musicals based on the life of Jesus, the Dairy Dog, ramshackle poverty.
The success of coming-of-age stories, beyond the superficial allure of their often mythically proportioned events, depends on the character of the poor soul hesitating unaware at the threshold of change. Daniel, whose father's job has taken the family to Mississippi, knows that he will be a loser at Minor High School just because he's new. Fictional high-school losers are a stereotype, but we tend to like them for the prophetic quality of their innocence. As adults, we know that the losers in fact will be the ones left standing when all the Sturm und Drang of adolescence is over. In Daniel, Childress has created an underdog who doesn't exactly see the worst coming, but when it does, he rises obligingly to the heroic stature we require of losers. And though adult readers will be nervous long before Daniel, his innocence wins the reader's heart in this story of complicated betrayals.
This is also a novel of firsts, as all coming-of-age tales must be, and Daniel's firsts -- first prom, first kiss, first brush with the adult dark -- is handled by Childress with the seat-gripping pace of a NASCAR race. His prose gets fast, even staccato, and the swooning, hysterical quality of the writing is just right for the labored and helpless consciousness of a teenage boy encountering fear and longing for the first time. In bed with his girlfriend, Daniel can't even stop for a comma or two. He is "overflowing with terror jubilation embarrassment pure horny goatish eagerness and this sudden fierce tenderness . . . " Daniel's first love is Arnita Beecham, the black prom queen of Minor High. An accident, in which Daniel and his best friend, Tim, play a sorry role, leaves Arnita with a serious head injury. Daniel, properly guilty and heroic to his loser core, steps in to aid in Arnita's recovery, while leaving Red Martin, the school bully and football star, to take the fall for the crime of abandoning the injured Arnita by the side of the road. From here on, One Mississippi depends on the swift unraveling of this first misstep into a tangle of lies and concealments. The shocking end features violence, racial hatred and a terrifying portrait of what happens when a truly disturbed teenager rears up out of the ineffectual mists of childhood and into adult life like the Loch Ness monster, gore dripping from its jaws.
There are moments of humor along the way -- painful high school band performances, for instance, that will make former majorettes and trombonists wince -- and One Mississippi perhaps would be too dark without them. Yet it's hard to know how to take certain disconcerting conceits: Arnita wakes up from her accident insisting that she is white, not black, for instance, a confusing and implausible delusion that carries on long past the point of credulity. It's hard to have dark without light, of course, but sometimes Childress seems to be having so much fun with his portrait of high school life that he almost forgets what a grim and tangled web he has woven here.
Just as Childress begins the novel with Daniel borne along on his bicycle toward the nirvana he imagines is the future, so the author wisely leaves him at the end of the novel taking a different journey. High school, to the teenage loser, seems like the beginning and end of the world, but adult readers -- and Childress himself -- know the truth. Daniel's life is only just beginning. ·
Carrie Brown's new novel, "The Rope Walk," will be published next year. .