By Sarah Pekkanen
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; C04
For a comic mystery romp, Fannie Flagg's latest book, "I Still Dream About You," has a lot of talk about suicide, incest, cross-dressing and vicious backstabbing. But hey, who says those are bad things?
Flagg, the author of "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" and a half-dozen other popular books, has filled this charming new novel with quirky characters, led by a former Miss Alabama. Maggie Fortenberry knows how to tie a scarf in 40 different ways, adorns her signature with smiley faces and has never gotten a parking ticket or cursed in public (no word on whether those last two are related).
Yet, at 60, Maggie, an unmarried real estate agent, is dissatisfied with the trajectory of her life. She's mourning the loss of her dear friend Hazel Whisenknott, a 3-foot-4-inch burst of energy who once answered a question about her mood by saying, "I'm feeling a little more short-statured than height-challenged today." Although Maggie is close to the perpetually dieting Brenda, a fellow real estate agent who aspires to become mayor of Birmingham, Maggie feels she doesn't have anyone -- or much of anything -- to live for.
As she painstakingly plots the details of her death, she looks for ways to make it easier on others. Not wanting Brenda to be shocked, Maggie gives her a hint, confessing that she has been feeling depressed. But Brenda wrests away control of the conversation, demanding to know if she looks "like a big fat Tootsie Roll in a wig." Later, when Maggie asks if she has ever thought about "giving up," Brenda wonders if she should get her stomach stapled. Why is Brenda aiming for just the mayor's job? With this level of self-absorption, she'd be a natural on Capitol Hill!
Birmingham's role in the civil rights movement pops up throughout the book, and its history of segregation is arguably the reason Maggie's life began a downward spiral: Antagonism toward Alabama ruined her chance to be named Miss America. It's clear that Maggie's love of her home town is mingled with quiet shame for this particular part of its past.
But Maggie gets distracted from her deadly plan when she and Brenda discover a skeleton stuffed into an old trunk and a person from her past who suddenly reappears. By now it's clear that Maggie, who grew up in an apartment above a movie theater, deserves a bright Technicolor ending. Readers will root for her to get one.
Pekkanen's comic novel, "The Opposite of Me," was published in March.