- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2011

I STILL DREAM ABOUT YOU
By Fannie Flagg
Random House, $26, 320 pages

There is something quite irresistible about Fannie Flagg’s novels. She writes about ordinary people living everyday lives in a down-to-earth style. But with a twist. Her characters have curious idiosyncrasies, and there is a sly tongue-in-cheek quality to the plot and its cheerful tone.

In her new novel, “I Still Dream About You,” Miss Flagg takes us into the old-fashioned world of Birmingham, Ala.

The characters include Maggie Fortenberry, a still-beautiful former Miss Alabama who seems to have everything but considers her existence to be hopeless; Brenda Peoples, Maggie’s best friend and real estate partner, a woman who can’t resist doughnuts or that last piece of pie; Ethel Clipp, the grumpy purple-haired office manager of the real estate company; and unscrupulous real estate rival Babs Bingington, who is not above telling lies about the competition.

Then there is the extraordinary Hazel Whisenknott, the 3-foot-4-inch owner of Red Mountain Realty, a self-described “cute midget,” a “dynamo ball of energy, that silly little funhouse of a human being who had kept [her employees] amused and entertained, who had pumped them up, lifted their spirits, driven them crazy, but, most of all, had made them feel special.”

Maggie grew up in a one-bedroom apartment above Dreamland, a small neighborhood movie theater. “To reach the apartment, she had to walk through a narrow, dark, carpeted stairway that was always cluttered with a few old broken spotlights and signs that read COMING SOON or HELD OVER ANOTHER WEEK and cardboard boxes full of black plastic letters for the marquee.” The theater “was not much to look at in the daytime, but at night, everything changed. … She had loved growing up in the theater, but Maggie now suspected it was the main reason she had always had such a hard time facing reality.”

Maggie was an exceptionally beautiful girl, but she lost the Miss America crown (which everyone agreed should have been hers) in 1964 in Atlantic City because of the racial troubles going on at the time, and when Miss Alabama was announced, she was greeted with catcalls and boos. Her beau at the time was Charles Hodges II, who came from “quite a social background.” But rather than marry Charles, Maggie chose to go to New York, where she was never able to realize her dreams.

Rather than return to Birmingham, Maggie moved on to Dallas, where she had a long-running affair with a married man. “Now, thanks to her wasting all those child-bearing years, years she could never get back, her official 2008 Miss Alabama bio now read, ‘Margaret never married and is presently involved in real estate.’ Dear God, how perfectly pitiful.”

Next, Maggie found a job on a cruise ship, “teaching classes in scarf tying and napkin folding.” She returned to Birmingham to take care of her aging parents.

As the novel opens, Maggie is getting ready to leave Birmingham. She’s not about to take a vacation but has decided to do away with herself in a manner that no one will know what has happened to her. She plans carefully, from closing bank accounts, hiding the equipment she will need by the riverbank, ordering a taxi in a false name and leaving a note “to whom it may concern.”

But things keep happening that cause Maggie to postpone her journey, much to her annoyance. Maggie is a well-brought-up Southern woman, and she cannot bear to make anyone uncomfortable or to refuse a favor for a friend. She is the sort of woman for whom “the very thought of going out in public without [her makeup] wouldn’t have crossed her mind.”

When Crestview, the grand house on a hill overlooking the city, comes up for sale, she finds the perfect buyer for it, but she also finds a skeleton in a trunk in the attic. The subplot relating to the identity of the skeleton is a delight, and I will not give away the mystery Maggie unravels.

Maggie never does complete her plans to disappear, and there is a happy ending for all concerned, except for Babs “the Beast” Bingington, who gets what she deserves. As for Maggie, “Life was odd; only two days ago, she had felt just like the last fox-trot on the Titanic … but today, it was full speed ahead!”

Fannie Flagg’s prose doesn’t make her readers laugh out loud, but one chuckles throughout this entertaining romp. Very special is her portrait of Birmingham, the “Magic City.” In 1887, when Angus Crocker built his mansion, Crestview, he “had no art in his home. His art was the outline of the buildings of the city against the sky, the red and orange streaks of iron ore in the mountains, and the glowing red-hot rivers of iron and steel that ran through his mills day and night. There was no piano in the living room. The pulse and the pounding of the steam engines, iron banging on iron, steel on steel; the sound of the train whistles in the night as they pulled in and out of the downtown terminal with boxcars loaded with coal and pig iron, such was the only music Angus Crocker liked to hear.”

By the time Maggie was growing up, Birmingham was a city with “lofty aspirations and illusions of grandeur. You could see it everywhere you looked, from the towering smokestacks of the iron, coal and steel mills to the grand mansions atop Red Mountain to the sparkle in the cement in the downtown sidewalks. The city was bustling and alive, with block after block of elegant stores, where mannequins stood in haughty poses, dressed in the latest fashions and furs from New York and Paris; blocks of showrooms filled with fine rugs, lamps and furniture, displayed so beautifully you wanted to walk in and live there forever. …”

Story Continues →