Format: 304 pp., hardcover with dust jacket; Size: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6’’; Price: $35.95; Publisher: Liveright Publishing; Number animals the protagonist brings back to life: four (depending on how you count); Number of politicians who double as religious demagogues: one; Other books by the author: Pretend We Live Here, A LIttle in Love With Everyone; Representative Passage: “Max had thought love would begin with a courting ritual: arranged dates, unbuttoned shirts, a first kiss, anticipated yet restrained, on the sidewalk before a house. Love was not a boy in Germany with blood pouring from his mouth. Love was not a witch in Alabama who slept until noon and ate cloves of garlic. But there in that room, Max wanted to buy Pan a house full of flowers.”
Central Question: How do boyhood, queerness, and magic intersect?
In Genevieve Hudson’s Alabama, there are boys. In that Alabama, the boys play football. They touch each other in violent and tender ways. They drink many kinds of poisons. In that Alabama, some things are allowed, some are not; some things are alive, some are not. In that Alabama, things melt, drip. In that Alabama, “each day [tries] to stuff more heat inside itself.”
That Alabama is where Max, a German teenager, ends up in Hudson’s debut novel Boys of Alabama when he moves with his parents for his father’s Mercedes Benz manufacturing job. He thinks and speaks in the halting, ultra-poetic syntax of someone for whom English is a second language, and the novel follows him as he navigates a complex world, trying to negotiate football, the evangelical Christian culture of the south, queerness and outsiderness (which are not always the same thing), grief, and violence. When the novel begins, Max’s life has been upended not only by his parents’ decision to leave the only home he’s ever known, but also by the devastating loss of his first love; he longs to move on, but mourning is difficult.
Max is also an athlete, and is immediately folded into the football team and the specific kind of masculinity that surrounds it, the kind that southern (and white American) culture bleeds. But athletics aren’t the only thing Max’s body is capable of: his body is possessed by an inexplicable power that allows him to control life and death.Like football, it manifests as a craving—and sometimes even a form of self-harm—but this craving lets him bring animals back to life. Can he do the same with people?
This is the context in which the reader meets Max, one of the most compelling protagonists of contemporary fiction in recent memory. Hudson’s debut novel (they previously penned the book-length essay A Little In Love With Everyone, the short story collection Pretend We Live Here, and many short stories) is a stunner, with prose that is always imaginative and sensual. Boys of Alabama feels like a luscious expansion of the voice that characterizes the prose of Hudson’s short fiction: crystallized, vivid, tactile, and totally hypnotic. “Heat pulled life out of the cracks in the concrete, gashes in tree trunks, putrid planks of wood,” Hudson writes of the Alabama landscape. “A purple bloom grew out of a rubber tire.” Such is the kind of lush sentence that sprouts from every page of this novel. But the story itself exceeds the sentences from which it is constructed; it pulses, turgor building in its veins until it crashes hard into a final scene that deoxygenates the reader.
Hudson’s prose and narrative couch a fascinating investigation of masculinity and whiteness. Max finds himself swept into a southern culture of football and evangelical Christianity, both of which are rooted in white supremacy and toxic masculinity. In many ways, he takes to it. His natural athletic ability softens his transition, and his white skin makes him an acceptable immigrant. He possesses an adolescent desire to fit in, and glaring blind spots about what it might mean to do so. At the same time, though, Max falls into aching love with a witchy, gender-bending goth kid named Pan, whose parents are Puerto Rican. Though the novel is told in close third person from Max’s perspective, Pan beats at the novel’s heart. Max is well aware of his own queerness before arriving in Alabama, but Pan challenges Max’s perceptions of both masculinity and whiteness. His clothes and mannerisms break gender’s rigid rules, which Max envies. The differences and similarities between the European and American expressions of these concepts are not often explored in fiction, let alone from adolescents’ viewpoints. Hudson’s imagining of the intersections between the dual histories of American anti-Blackness and German anti-Semtism, and how that violence gets passed down into the bodies of future generations, is compelling:
‘I think we got a poisoned energy down here.’ Pan says to Max. ‘It’s afflicted us. I taste it in the air. We’re just breathing in the violence.’
‘Bad stuff happens everywhere… Doesn’t mean it damages the energy of a place.’
‘Wrong,’ Pan said. Pan set his nail file on his thigh. Nail dust on his dark jeans. White as sugar.
Max feels a kind of white guilt about the Holocaust, but as a cisgender white boy, he wants to—and can, and does—turn away from a necessary reckoning. Pan’s insistence that “we got a poisoned energy down here” challenges but doesn’t entirely change Max’s thinking. He continues to engage with the harmful aspects of religion and sports, overlapping spheres that welcome him despite his outsiderness. Max’s markers as cisgender, masculine, and athletic make it easy for him not to internalize the hard lessons of Pan’s words.
But Max’s ideas about masculinity are steadily expanded by knowing and loving Pan, who wears eyeliner, nail polish, and “feminine” clothes. “Ever since he’d met Pan, his imagination had expanded,” Hudson writes. “His definition of boy had expanded… Boy on his back. Boy in his hair.” Whatever glimmers of manic-pixie-dream-person or magical-token trappings Pan might have at the start, though, dissolve as the story unfolds. Pan is a fully realized, imperfect, complicated character. He makes his own devastating decisions and has his own agenda when it comes to Max. What Max encounters in his relationship with Pan around gender and queer connection—a fluidity in presentation and corporeality, a complex sexual desire—does not read as prescriptive or moralistic, but rather as a lovingly rendered story of the ways in which queer people can, and need to, expand each other’s worlds. “Strangeness recognized itself and called more strangeness to it,” Hudson writes.
It is at this meeting of bodies that a love story unfolds. And like all love stories, this one is not tidy, but beautiful. “Love was not a boy in Germany with blood pouring from his mouth,” Hudson writes. “Love was not a witch in Alabama who slept until noon and ate cloves of garlic. But there in that room, Max wanted to buy Pan a house full of flowers.” Queer and gender-diverse people find each other out of necessity and, not least, out of a kind of mystical joy.