'Praying for Sheetrock' is a real-life story of Georgia


October 09, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"Praying for Sheetrock," by Melissa Fay Greene, 337 pages, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, New York, $21.95.

MELISSA FAY Greene's "Praying for Sheetrock" is the Georgia book that people should be reading instead of some super-hyped, hoked-up, greed-driven sequel to "Gone With the Wind."

"Praying for Sheetrock" is a thick, rich Southern Gothic tale. And it's about real life, contemporary life in McIntosh County, Georgia, a place as dark and grotesque as any in Carson McCullers' countryside of the sad cafes or in William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.

"Praying for Sheetrock" hasn't gone unnoticed. It's one of the 15 finalists for the 1991 National Book Awards.

Greene's book -- "a work of non-fiction," she calls it -- is essentially the story of two men. One is Thurnell Alston, a black man who stood up to the white hierarchy in McIntosh County and sparked the political awakening of his community, "a sleeping giant," white people used to say.

And it's about Tom Poppell, the sheriff who ran McIntosh County as if it were his own feudal fiefdom. Poppell was even described in medieval terms: "He was the last of the great old time High Sheriffs," said one police detective. His father had been sheriff before him.

The High Sheriff was a kind of benign bigot, a paternal racist. He had black deputies long before any other Georgia county, he was friendly to blacks, he shared the largess that came down U.S. 17, the old main route to Florida before Interestate 95 was built.

Poppell even organized the first black community organization in McIntosh County. He then sought out and helped elect a black county commissioner when McIntosh needed evidence of integrated leadership to qualify for federal revenue-sharing funds. But the black community never seemed to get the revenue.

Deacon Henry Curry, the shrimp boat captain who became the first commissioner, had too much dignity to be a docile pawn and quit after one term. Curry, a religious man who lived to be 101 and spoke in parables, is one of a dozen ancillary characters eloquently drawn by Melissa Fay Greene.

And in her book McIntosh County has such a strong earthy presence it's almost like another character. Half pine forest and half seacoast marsh, McIntosh springs to fecund life with steamy summer nights, deep-throated swamp creatures and throbbing hummingbirds.

McIntosh County is one of those Southern places that seem so amazing to people who haven't grown up in the South, places that seem even more exotic because these astonishing events are going on right now.

McIntosh is a county on the Georgia Sea Island coast about halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla. One of the poorest counties in Georgia, it's about half black and half white. White people know which plantations their ancestors owned; blacks know on which ones their grandparents were slaves.

McIntosh's major assets were tourists and truckers on U.S. 17, until the Interstate killed that. McIntosh was the most notorious tourist trap on the route to Florida. McIntosh was famous for clip joints and the S&S Truck Stop, where they only had one service and it wasn't selling gas.

A wrecked truck was looted like a ship aground on the coast. Sheriff Poppell stood by and invited blacks to share the windfall. That's how the lady praying to God for help in finishing her house got her Sheetrock. God delivered a truckload in one big crash.

McIntosh pecan stands reaped thousands of dollars from Northern tourists who thought they could beat dumb Georgia crackers at a complicated dice game called "Razzle Dazzle." None did. And many complained to the governor of Georgia. He couldn't do anything either. The High Sheriff took care of business in McIntosh County.

That's why he sought to elude trouble during the civil rights era. He had a vested interest. But the sheriff's plantation started coming apart in March 1972 when a black man named Ed Finch was shot in the mouth by the police chief of Darien, which is the county seat of McIntosh.

Finch was dragged bleeding to jail and tossed into a cell without any kind of medical help. The black people of McIntosh got more and more angry until Thurnell Alston stood up, took the leadership and got Ed Finch help.

Alston, a hard-drinking boilermaker with a stammer and enormous pride and energy, was a political leader in the county from then on. With the help of Georgia Legal Services, he led a fight to redistrict McIntosh, then became a county commissioner from the black district.

Greene's story of Alston's life unfolds with the awful inevitability of Greek tragedy. When Alston's life turns bad it seems almost fated by the dark, fertile, corrupting nights of sub-tropical McIntosh County.

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