By: Pat Mayer
Reviewed by: Jill Deaver
University of West Alabama
From the opening pages of Pat Mayer’s novel The Cannibals Said Grace, it’s clear that something is amiss. “It’s in the nature of the place and its people to coat and cover,” he writes. The place is Benedict, Alabama, and what the quirky townspeople have been coating and covering is their appetite for corruption.
In the dark recesses of Miller’s Woods this novel opens with a murder cover-up “discovered” by a bumbling, throat clearing, dog-catching, anti-hero, Mickey Mackey. Mackey was born and raised in the nearby town of Absalom, and from his past to his present, this guy just can’t catch a break. Mackey’s positive that his discovery will finally get him a positive write-up in the local paper, and that he’ll at long last get the chance to lead a real investigation, but the only story on Mackey is that the poor guy can’t control his bladder.
Mayer develops her story slowly, as if by dragging her readers through the river that runs through the town. It seems fun at first, but as more players are introduced and fleshed out, and the victim and his murderer are revealed, the quirkiness of the whole town seems to slip slowly into the murky waters of the bayou that’s haunted by a romanticized Old South full of moss-covered Faulknerian plantations.
In many ways, Mayer harkens back to Southern Gothic traditions, but what’s refreshing is how she spins it. The story takes place in January, eerily absent of the sweltering summer heat we’re so used to reading about. There is magic, but the voodoo is not nearly as devilish as what people are capable of themselves. There are ghosts, but the real haunts of the town aren’t really hovering out there in Miller’s Woods, but rather in memories and behind backs. And there are recollections of gleaming sidewalks in front of Victorian homes covered in Spanish moss, but Mayer paints it truer with modest, suburban homes lit with neon lights from the Waffle House and the Dairy Queen.
The Cannibals Said Grace is ultimately about loss and regaining strength. While readers will naturally root for Mackey and hope the worst for his enemies, perhaps the true heroes of the story are Jake and Gloria, who after losing a son and their affection for each other, finally regain strength and are able to resurface just in time for the normalcy of the summer heat and the azaleas in bloom. Sept 2009
Jill Deaver teaches English at the University of Montevallo and Jefferson State Community College.