FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE By Fannie Flagg Random House. 403 pp. $17.95
Goings-on at and around the Whistle Stop Cafe are the core of this funny and macabre novel, told alternately by Dot Weems' weekly columns in the local newspaper and by Ninny Threadgoode, a resident of the Rose Terrace Nursing Home.
The newspaper columns begin in 1929, when the Whistle Stop opens for business, and end in 1969, when Dot Weems and her "other half," as she refers to him throughout, move to another part of Alabama. Anyone who's ever read a small-town newspaper will chuckle over Dot Weems' contribution, filled with delightful non sequiturs and matter-of-fact reportage of the bizarre:
"Mrs. Biddie Louise Otis, who lives at 401 1st Street, reported that on Thursday night a two-pound meteorite crashed through the roof of her house and just missed hitting her, but did hit the radio she was listening to at the time. She said that she was sitting on the couch because the dog was in the chair, and had just turned on 'Fleischmann's Yeast Hour,' when it happened. She said that there is a four-foot hole in her roof and that her radio is broken in half." Similarly, Weems passes on such gems as last week's Bible study topic, "Why Did Noah Let Two Snakes on the Boat When He Had a Chance to Get Rid of Them Once and for All?' "
While Dot Weems' column provides flavor, Ninny Threadgoode's memories actually move the book along. Ninny is a nicely rounded character who, at age 86, occasionally wears her clothing wrong side out. She shares with us that she feels a little gassy from time to time, and that she can't eat pimiento because of her teeth. We warm to her, as does the book's central figure, Evelyn Couch, the present-day person Ninny addresses.
Evelyn is a 48-year-old housewife who is always feeding her face. She is alternately suicidal and homicidal, a Complete Woman dropout (She completed Step 1 of "The Ten Steps to Happiness," wherein she greeted her husband at the front door nude but for a roll of Saran Wrap, but never got to Step 2: going to his office dressed as a prostitute). Evelyn and her husband Ed best demonstrate the author's ability to mix the comic and the sad. Take Ed, who "on Saturdays ... would wander around the Home Improvement Center alone, for hours; looking for something, but he didn't know what." Or Evelyn, who drives by "the places where she used to live, over and over."
Evelyn is brought to a semblance of sanity by the stories Ninny tells her, mainly the example of Idgie Threadgoode, the strong-willed, much-loved owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Idgie, grief-stricken over the death of her brother, falls in love with Ruth Jamison, a Sunday school teacher summering in Whistle Stop. When Ruth goes back to Georgia to marry Frank Bennett, Idgie is devastated. The Threadgoode family and town at large, in a typically tolerant rural stance, support Idgie's crush. Nobody bats an eye when Ruth leaves Frank for Idgie (in fact the man is such a brute that the reader will cheer) and the pair become a couple. When Ruth gives birth to Buddy Jr. (named after Idgie's dead brother), Idgie assumes a fatherly role.
But Idgie figures in some of the town mysteries, too. There's Frank Bennett's disappearance, hilariously explained about 35 years later. And the revelation of the identity of Railroad Bill, an outlaw who would toss things from the boxcars as the train roared through the night: hams, canned goods and such, all thrown where starving poor folks could find them the next day.
The segues and the juxtapositions, like the rest of the book, are sometimes amusing, sometimes touching, sometimes sad. There is a neat tying up of all loose ends. Life at the Whistle Stop Cafe, for all of the iconoclasm and ruckus and clamor, comes across as simple and as hearty as the recipes at the back of the book. These purport to be the Whistle Stop cook's recipes for everything but barbecue, passed on by a fitting survivor, the no longer overweight and overwrought Evelyn Couch.
The reviewer is the author of several suspense novels, including, most recently, "Patchwork.