Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Behind The Smile

By Shelly Ridenour

JANUARY 31, 2000: 

Eating the Cheshire Cat by Helen Ellis (Scribner), $23, 288 pages

I'm particularly resistant to literature that "mocks" Southern (make that Dixie) stereotypes, even as it continues the ugly propagation. Not just the barefoot "Beverly Hillbillies" retreads, but also the swept-away Tara-tragic romances, the quirky Billy Bob Joe eccentrics, the trailer trash coming-of-age vindictives. It's just goofy that in the year 2000 I still have to explain to people that I've never eaten possum, never been to Dollywood, never seen a moonshine still, and, no, I don't know why "y'all" is used as both a singular and plural noun.

That said, Helen Ellis' debut novel maybe could've been set in another part of the country, but comes to life via its Southern roots. It is camp, but it is not trash. It is full of the kind of beautiful belles with perfect hair who might seem similar to Valley Girls or Jersey J.A.P.s, but are the South's own special breed. (Ellis recently told Vogue, "... in New York, what you get is what you see. A mugger looks like a mugger. A drag queen looks like Barbra or Bette. In Alabama, you don't know what's behind capped teeth and Maybelline.") And it is full of dead-on scenarios, settings and language that evoke painfully, embarrassingly funny ghosts of adolescence.

At the state fair, "The Matterhorn deejay boomed, 'ARE... YOU... READY? HEY, HEY, HEY! I DON'T THINK YOU FOLKS ARE SCREAMING LOUD ENOUGH. HOW'S ABOUT I SEND YOU MOTHERPLUCKERS BACKWARDS?"

"Eating the Cheshire Cat" is the story of Sarina Summers (did I go to high school with a girl of the same name? Possibly.), an Alabama p.y.t. who would be Faith Hill-perfect were it not for her unnaturally crooked pinkies. So, for her Sweet Sixteen, her Li'l Debbie of a mom gives her the gift of good looks, getting Sarina smashed and then smashing the offending fingers with an ax handle so that they can be reset in a position better than the one God created.

From there, the story twists and turns through love-hate friendships, Laura Ashley dresses lifted in the name of lust, sorority politics, Sunbeam bread, all-too real wrong vs. right side of the tracks divisions and the uniquely rabid tradition that is Southern college football--right down to a homecoming queen ceremony that recalls the final explosive scene from "Carrie."

It is wicked, it is cover-your-mouth funny, it is as dark as it is honey blond, and it is a thoroughly entertaining example of modern Southern gothic--or, as Ellis has said her mama describes it, "the dark side of baby."


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