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Why Beulah Shot Her Pistol Inside the Baptist Church
By Clayton Sullivan
New South Books, 2004
Hardcover, $24.95 (238 pages)
ISBN: 1-58838-167-6
 
 
 

Told in first-person by the Beulah of the title, this is a short novel that might have fared better as a long short story and from another point of view. The author is often unconvincing in writing as a woman, and Beulah’s speech pattern, an exaggeration of the storytelling style typical of her rural Mississippi upbringing, relies on mind-numbing repetition of everything said and done.  

The story: Beulah Buchanan is a backward, not particularly bright teenager who marries a man much older than she to get away from home. The loveless marriage lasts six long years during which Beulah is used and abused, exploited by both her tyrannical husband Ralph and their venal minister, Brother Ledbetter, a Primitive Baptist preacher fond of making house calls on church members whose husbands are away from home. Eventually the worm turns, and turns with a vengeance, but, owing mainly to the repetition, it seems a long time coming, and when it does the reader finds that Beulah, till now a sympathetic character, is even worse than her antagonists. She kills her husband, gets away with it, inherits his prosperous business, and lives happily ever after.  

Though billed in dust-jacket notes as “a new take on the Southern Gothic tragedy” told in a “hilarious voice” evoking the comic novels of Clyde Edgerton and Mark Childress, the novel seems unsure whether to play for laughter or sympathy. No matter. Ultimately it forfeits both in invoking the reader’s complicity in murder.  

The novel also encourages us to think of this as a story of women’s liberation, of “a young woman breaking free.” And indeed the reader would like to rejoice when, in the novel’s denouement, Beulah spills the beans in church on Brother Ledbetter, shoots out the lights at Ralph’s funeral, tells the preacher and his congregation to put it where the sun don’t shine, gets her hair cut for the very first time, buys a new outfit, starts wearing lipstick, buys herself a Cadillac, and adopts an up-yours attitude befitting the new woman she has become—except that now the reader’s moral sense rebels. Murder doesn’t sound like the road to freedom or liberation of any kind, and it definitely isn’t funny.  

The author, a professor emeritus of philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Southern Mississippi, has published other books, but this is his first novel.  Thus he may be forgiven for not knowing, apparently, that novels are about the struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, and that the reader’s sympathies should not be enlisted in championing the wrong side of that moral equation.     

    

Robert Lamb
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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