Vice and Its Grip
Monday, March 31, 2008
By Ace Atkins
Putnam. 336 pp. $24.95
To come of age in the southern United States in the years after World War II was to learn a fair amount about evangelical religion and college football, perhaps to encounter a smattering of literature, but certainly to become well schooled about vice in its many manifestations: prostitution, illegal whiskey, gambling, stag movies and other sinful pursuits. In Texas, where I lived, certain red-light districts, such as Galveston's Post Office Street, and even individual brothels, such as Chicken Ranch in La Grange (later immortalized by Larry L. King in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas") were legendary. Austin, the state's most enlightened city, boasted a sedate farmhouse south of town where University of Texas students and state legislators found companionship. In my home town, Fort Worth, every schoolboy knew that certain motels on the Jacksboro Highway (including the memorably named Rosebud Motel) offered women, and that high-stakes poker games were easy to find nearby. It was considered most unfortunate in 1950 when some gamblers used a car bomb to eliminate a rival and managed to blow up his pregnant wife as well. Killing pregnant women was frowned upon, and it was necessary for the city fathers to shut things down for a time.
That, really, was the point, in Texas and across the South. Vice was tolerated as long as it was kept under control and the proper payoffs were made. What made Phenix City, Ala. -- the wicked city of Ace Atkins's title -- notable in the 1940s and early '50s was that the vice lords controlled the town. The city attorney turned a blind eye, and senior police officials were part of the gang that ran the town. Men from around the South -- soldiers, college boys, salesmen, rednecks on a spree -- flocked to Phenix City, and many people there grew rich. The local churches profited, since many of the vice kingpins professed to be devout Christians, and the wages of sin built one of the state's finest hospitals, for the use of criminals and honest folk alike. Some vice money left the town, of course, to line the pockets of candidates for governor and state attorney general.
One evening in June 1954, someone gunned down a lawyer named Albert Patterson outside his office in Phenix City. Running as an anti-vice crusader, Patterson had just won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general -- which, in those days, meant he was assured of election. Witnesses to the murder were scarce, and so many crooked cops and professional killers were lurking about, it was hard to know which of them was the trigger man. It happened that the murdered man had a son, John Patterson, who was his law partner. He obtained the Democratic nomination to replace his father as attorney general and led the search for his killers.
All this is the background for Atkins's sixth and best novel. Atkins is an Alabamian who once played on an undefeated Auburn football team, became a reporter and now writes Southern-based novels. Born in 1970, he's too young to have known Phenix City in its glory days, but he has done extensive research to give us a painfully realistic picture of just how ugly and corrupt the city had become. In the course of his research, he discovered his grandfathers were part of the corruption, one as a purveyor of moonshine statewide, the other as a state employee who collected bribes and passed the money to higher-ups.
Atkins tells his story mostly through a decent fellow named Lamar Murphy, who operates a Texaco station and is a leader in the town's anti-vice movement. In the aftermath of Patterson's murder, the governor is forced to declare martial law and send in the National Guard. Local officials are ousted from office, and Murphy becomes the sheriff. However, it is by no means certain that he, the younger Patterson and the other reformers will win this battle. Plenty of stone-cold killers are running loose who would gladly shoot the reformers dead if that would put them back in business.
Atkins does an excellent job of showing just how cruel the mobsters were. In one chilling scene, they tie a reporter to a tree and torture him. In another, based on a real-life incident, some thugs bind a reformer and his wife to their bed and set out to blow up them and their home with dynamite. A 13-year-old girl is beaten and forced into prostitution, and when the brothels are closed down, their owners lock 20 teenage girls in a barn and leave them to starve. Women are bought and sold, and Atkins reports that the brothel owners often tattooed a number on the inside of their lips to keep track of them. Along with the traditional manifestations of vice, Atkins adds some that are less well known. One woman who has prospered as a madam got her start during the war by marrying 20 or more soldiers who were headed overseas so that their pay, and possibly their death benefits, would be sent back to her. Also, with the help of a local doctor, the babies that the prostitutes gave birth to were auctioned off to the highest bidder.
It's a vile story, well told. Atkins nicely summons up the 1950s South and keeps us guessing as to whether vice or virtue will triumph in Phenix City. It's not giving away too much to say that some of the guilty were punished, but a great many pimps, gamblers and killers just moved on to Tampa or Nashville or Birmingham or any of a hundred other cities to do business. Perhaps their grandsons are selling sex over the Internet today, or have even figured out how to sell a girl to a rich Yankee politician for $4,300. If so, their spiritual fathers back in Phenix City must be laughing their fool heads off.