The Story Behind “Big Alabama and the Danforth Avenue Gang” by James Valvis

James-Valvis-HeadshotToday’s post is written by James Valvis. We published his short story “Big Alabama and the Danforth Avenue Gang” in our Spring 2016 issue.

Charles Bukowski was in his declining years when, after years of snubbing him, they chose one of his poems for Best American Poetry. When they finally took that poem, they asked him to talk about it in his contributor notes, as they do all included poets, and I’ll never forget his one-line reply. He said, “The more you talk about a poem, the less it becomes.”

The wisdom of his words seems inviolate, but if you’ll indulge a writer less capable of restraint, I’d like to say a few words about this story and Big Alabama in general.

In about 1997, shortly after reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Isaac Singer’s wonderful In My Father’s Court, both early influences, Big Alabama first appeared in a flash fiction story (“Big Alabama and the Two Hearts” published in Pearl Magazine). I had no plans to do anything else with her, or her little brother/ward/victim, Watson. (Watson in that he tells the tales of this larger-than-life figure, often full of awe and exasperation. At one point I played with the idea of naming him Watson and giving them the surname Holmes, but it seemed a little too much kitsch.)

Despite these humble beginnings, Big A, as I affectionately call her, has now appeared in well over 50 stories (and a few poems), some as long as a couple hundred words and one as long as a novel. She’s stolen a car, beaten up a bully with a Judy Blume book, set fire to a police station, pilfered collection envelopes at church, gone on a blind date she met while making prank calls, found and rented out the Holy Grail, fought a black belt to the death, joined the communist party, played a violent Virgin Mary in a school play, started her own cleaning business, and protected a molested girl from her evil father—all before turning 17 and all while alternately shielding or abusing or scamming her “little twerp” brother, Pete, who, despite being the brains in the family, is always either outhustled, outmuscled, or, most gallingly, outwitted by Big Alabama. Every now and then, perhaps when driving in my car, or standing over a toilet I’m cleaning, or walking through a wooded path, Big A will pay me a visit and say, “Hi there, Author. Remember me?”

At some point I realized there was a book in all this (still unassembled), but a book of linked stories shouldn’t just be episodic. It needs to have an arc tying disjointed stories together. I considered my options for a time, and eventually, despite the fact many Big A tales are humorous in nature, I realized the overall story is a sad one. Slowly, the stories became darker, Big Alabama growing more troubled, falling in with bad company, using drugs, her abuse of Pete more violent and less clever or comical, until we end up here on Danforth Avenue where everyone’s all but given up on her.

There are really three main characters in the Big A tales: Alabama, Pete, and the Jersey City ghetto where they live. (Their parents and teachers remain largely absent, rarely stumbling onstage, causing one fan to call the stories “Peanuts on crack.”) Of those three characters, the ghetto is, if not always the smartest, by far the toughest and meanest. Yes, Big Alabama wins some battles, but in the end the ghetto will devour her. You can’t fight your way out of the ghetto. (Like you can’t fight your way out of a war. The only way to end a war is to stop fighting.) If you try, the ghetto consumes you and, if you survive, one way or another you become the ghetto. Peter, for all his weakness, his need of defense, seems to know this. In the end, his weakness is his strength. In the end, Big Alabama’s strength is her weakness.

As this began to coalesce in my mind, I searched for an episode that would end the Big Alabama stories. That’s when the idea for the Danforth Avenue Gang arrived. It’s based off something that happened when I was a boy, though my circumstances were different. As I began writing, I knew it would be the last Big Alabama story. Maybe not the final one I wrote or published—it’s possible I will never stop writing Big Alabama tales– but the last in the chronology of Jersey City stories that begins when we first meet a toddler Alabama falling into a sewer.

It’s a melancholy ending, I think, rather than a tragic one. But tragedy seems just over the horizon. I don’t think I’d have the heart to follow her through the natural progression of her sad life. Along with her myriad flaws, she’s so tough, brave, clever, hopeful, and innocent in her desires, as are so many poor urban children who are forced, well before their times, to confront a sometimes hard and heartless world. I couldn’t bear watching her go the way so many ghetto kids go.

But who knows? Big Alabama has surprised me before. She may yet scam her way to the top—or at least not sink to the bottom. In any case, it’s prudent not to count her out. If nothing else, she might get angry about such pessimism. And I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.

About the Author

James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Louisville Review, Ploughshares, Potomac Review, River Styx, The Sun, and many others. His poetry has been featured in Verse Daily. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle and collects toy robots. 

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