Audio ©2010 AL Public Radio
by Melinda Rainey Thompson and Morgan Murphy
John F. Blair, 2010 It has been for a long time a commonplace and a complaint that Southern literature, fiction and nonfiction, leaves out the middle class. This is, historically, largely true. We have the rednecks of Erskine Caldwell and the elegant Tarleton Twins on the veranda at Scarlett O'Hara's Tara. Faulkner's emphasis is mostly divided between the planters/colonels Sartoris and Sutpen, on the one hand, and the poor-white Snopeses and blacks, on the other.
Part of the reason for this was, of course, that there was only a small middle class.
After WWII the middle class in the South expanded and now the South had suburbs! Unfortunately, many people, especially writers, think the suburbs are boring.
Human life there is fraught with the same problems as everywhere else, as John Updike in Couples or Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road has shown us, but the myth of middle-class suburban boringness persists.
Recently, however, writers such as Jill Connor Browne, author of The Sweet Potato Queens books, and Melinda Thompson have made efforts to tell the story of middle-class suburban life with insight and humor. These books are immensely popular. (There are lots of SUV-driving moms who buy books, and read them while waiting for their children to come out of their appointments at the orthodontist.)
In her first, S.W.A.G.--Southern Women Aging Gracefully, Thompson regaled her readers with stories of how a true Southern, middle-class wife and mom always wears make-up, will steal magnolia leaves to decorate the Episcopal church altar, does four loads of laundry every single day and, unless forcibly restrained will monogram everything in sight, from men's cuffs and collars to handbags and finally even dessert pastries. S.W.A.G. was a hit as was her next book, The SWAG Life, and Thompson has produced a third, this time in collaboration with the writer Morgan Murphy. This volume, a collection of essays, alternating male and female point of view, might be called "Women Are from Southern Venus; Men Are from Southern Mars."
They begin with the issue of reading instructions before assembling. Women do it. Thompson declares, "I read the instruction manual, and I use a highlighter. After I finish reading, I read it again."
In his essay, Murphy says instructions are "boring and annoying," either "incredibly simple or incredibly complicated." His lawnmower instruction manual said "for outdoor use only." Duh.
As with instructions, so with asking for directions. Thompson willingly admits she has no sense of direction and can't read maps. She is "directionally challenged."
Murphy, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, can read maps, yet confesses, "I'm a Southern male. I go places in a manner that suggests I know where I'm headed." He will not ask for directions. "I don't get lost. I may be temporarily waylaid, somewhat off course, slightly detained, . . . vaguely unsure of the fastest route to my ultimate destination, . . . but I am emphatically, definitely, never lost."
On the matter of romance, and especially keeping romance alive in a long-term relationship, Thompson's remarks are useful and extended. It is much as you expect. Men should remember holidays, birthdays, Valentine's Day, anniversaries, but even more important are little acts of spontaneous or non-holiday gestures. "Hold her hand voluntarily in public without looking embarrassed about it." "Ask her if she'd like you to beat someone up for her. Don't worry. She won't actually ask you to do it. It would just be nice if someone would occasionally offer."
Morgan Murphy also offers useful and succinct advice on how to romance the Southern Male. "Get nekkid."
The book goes on much in this vein. Thompson hates yard work. Murphy has undertaken huge projects involving fruit trees, decorative shrubs and flowers.
Thompson comes out strong against profanity. She has noticed a decline in public practice in this regard. Thompson suggest alternatives for women, such as "'Well, I never.' This is shorthand for I have never seen such a ridiculous thing in all my life. That is some kind of sex I have never heard of before. What were they thinking?" Murphy, the Navy man, gives instruction on the proper use and delivery of curses, on the occasions they are truly needed.
Both authors insist this book is for fun. It is not sociology or self-help or how-to; it is meant as entertainment, to give pleasure, and largely succeeds.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on April 26, 2010. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."