Covington, Dennis

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COVINGTON, Dennis

PERSONAL: Married; wife's name Vicki (a novelist); children: two daughters. Education: Iowa Writers Workshop, University of Iowa, M.F.A. Religion: Methodist.

ADDRESSES: Home—Birmingham, AL. Office—Department of English, Texas Tech University, P.O. Box 43091, Lubbock, TX 79409-3091. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: New York Times, New York, NY, former journalist; University of Alabama—Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, professor and director of creative writing program, until 2004; Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, faculty member, beginning c. 2004; writer and freelance journalist.

AWARDS, HONORS: Delacorte Prize for young adult first novel, Delacorte Press, 1991, for Lizard; Barrie Stavis Playwriting Award for Best New Play of the Year, National Theater Conference, 1995, for adaptation of Lizard; National Book Award finalist, 1995, and Rea Non-Fiction Prize, Boston Book Review, 1996, both for Salvation on Sand Mountain.

WRITINGS:

Lizard (young adult novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1991.

Lasso the Moon (young adult novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1995.

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1995.

(With wife, Vicki Covington) Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage, North Point Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream, Counterpoint (New York, NY), 2004.

ADAPTATIONS: Lizard was adapted into a play by Covington, for production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival as part of the Southern Writers' Project, 1994, and was selected to be performed at the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta, GA, 1996.

SIDELIGHTS: Dennis Covington has authored works of both young adult fiction and journalistic exposition. The director of the creative writing program at the University of Alabama—Birmingham, Covington also works as a freelance journalist. His first two published books, Lizard and Lasso the Moon, are young adult novels, while the third, 1995's Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, is a nonfiction account of Covington's ventures into the unusual world of a snake-handling church. While all three have been critically lauded, Lizard and Salvation on Sand Mountain have both been selected for literary awards.

The manuscript for Lizard languished for nine years—"under his bed" according to a contributor in Publishers Weekly—until Covington submitted it to the Delacorte competition for a young adult first novel. The story won the prize, was published in 1991, and attracted enthusiastic reviews. Lizard is the tale of a physically deformed boy who is wrongfully sent to a state institution for retarded children. An actor appears to claim Lucius—nicknamed "Lizard"—as his son, and although the boy knows this man is not his father, he goes with him to escape the hardships of the institution. His new life with an acting troupe is still cruel, but Lizard finds some semblance of happiness.

Lizard was praised as remarkable among young adult literature. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented on the book's "bold originality," adding that Lizard is an "intriguing combination of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Candide." A Kirkus Reviews critic contributor called Lizard a book with "a fresh, memorably sweet picture of its offbeat characters and singular, compelling events." Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman remarked that "Covington's story … makes art out of affliction and transforms the ordinary into something rich and strange."

The author's second young adult novel, Lasso the Moon, was published in 1995. The story's protagonist is April Hunter, a young high school student who is living with her father, a recovering alcoholic who has salvaged his career as a cardiologist but not his marriage or finances. April meets and becomes emotionally attached to Fernando, a seriously ill illegal immigrant. The young man faces the prospect of deportation back to San Salvador where he was once tortured and will likely be executed by the army if he returns. Susan R. Farber commented in Voice of Youth Advocates that the author's second book showed "an even greater depth and versatility. It is a credit to Covington's skill that the numerous, multi-layered subplots enhance the central theme." A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that "a well-observed setting and the thoughtfully probed relationships … add complexity to this moving story."

With Salvation on Sand Mountain Covington departed from fiction writing to pen a personal account about his experiences in a snake-handling church—the Church of Jesus with Signs Following—in which members of the congregation show their faith by handling poisonous snakes. The project was inspired by Covington's coverage of a murder trial in which the defendant, a church member, was charged with attempting to kill his wife by forcing her hand into a box of venomous snakes. Covington became intrigued. "I found myself so interested in the people and in their religious beliefs that I ceased asking questions about the crime and started asking questions about what they did and why they did it," Covington told Don Noble in an interview for Alabama Public Television's "Writing Today" series at Birmingham-Southern. At the urging of an editor, Covington immersed himself in the Appalachian religion, eventually handling venomous snakes himself and uncovering his own family's rural, southern roots. In a larger context, Covington described the project in Publishers Weekly as a "book about the South that would use snake handling as a lens." The story drew the attention of the national media and was featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, as well as National Geographic Explorer and Dateline NBC.

The result of Covington's adventures in the Church of Jesus with Signs Following was not a conversion—he was unable to justify the dangers of snake-handling despite his fascination for the subject—but an exciting tale of personal and cultural revelations. Norman Oder wrote in Publishers Weekly that Salvation on Sand Mountain was a "mix of spiritual quest and memoir, a book that not only garnered rave reviews but also letters from New Agers to rural outcasts." In a Los Angeles Times review, Charles Solomon described Covington as "talented" but quipped that with the zeal the author showed for snake-handling, "he'd better not write about heroin addiction or carjacking."

With his next two books, Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage and Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream, Covington continued to draw on his own experiences for material. In the former, the author collaborated with his wife, novelist Vicki Covington, to write an honest portrayal of their rocky but ultimately successful marriage. Over two decades, the Covingtons struggled with problems stemming from a variety of issues, including parenting, alcoholism, sexual experimentation, and a search for spiritualism and meaning in their lives. The chapters alternate, with Dennis Covington telling one chapter, and his wife telling the next, so that readers receive a balanced view of their marriage. While a number of reviewers praised the authors' frank and honest portrait of their experiences, several also found the stories of their many infidelities—a result of their agreed open marriage—disturbing. This led a Publishers Weekly contributor to conclude: "Although the book draws some power from its confessional style, it founders as a source of wisdom about marriage." Booklist critic Danise Hoover similarly found the book "both disturbing and exhilarating," but enjoyed this portrait of the Covingtons as "very honest and vital people." And Library Journal writer Marija Sanderling asserted that Cleaving will prove "fascinating to anyone involved in a long-term relationship."

Redneck Riviera is also a very personal story for Covington, who relates what happened to him after he tried to reclaim a small parcel of land in a Florida swamp that his father had left to him after he died. His father, a victim of a real estate scheme, was duped into buying the land back in 1965. But even though the land is not near any roads and is worthless for all intents and purposes, Covington resolved to claim it as his own. Traveling to Florida, he finds that the two and a half acres of swampland is inhabited by armed squatters who have fenced it in and are determined to keep Covington off the property. After several attempts to wrest control from the squatters, the author eventually gives up the fight as too dangerous. Intermixed with this story are several flashbacks to the author's childhood involving several colorful episodes, such as one time when he resolved to start his own business selling armadillos. Several reviewers of Redneck Riviera considered it a rambling, desultory tale that, although it lacks much of a point, contains many colorful descriptions and interesting stories. For example, a Publishers Weekly critic called the book "a bracingly original American adventure story" that suffers from "too much padding." Writing in Kliatt, Nola Theiss noted that Covington "occasionally wanders away from his topic," but enjoyed the book's occasionally "hilarious" episodes and the author's honesty about Southerner's "love for the land." Library Journal contributor Lynne F. Maxwell had high praise for "Covington's ironic sense of humor and masterful prose."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, May 1, 1991, Hazel Rochman, review of Lizard, p. 1706; April 15, 1999, Danise Hoover, review of Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage, p. 1501.

Entertainment Weekly, May 21, 1999, review of Cleaving, p. 70.

Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1991, review of Lizard, p. 787; November 15, 2003, review of Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws, and the Demise of an American Dream, p. 1347.

Kliatt, July, 2005, Nola Theiss, review of Redneck Riviera, p. 37.

Library Journal, February 1, 2004, Lynne F. Maxwell, review of Redneck Riviera, p. 112; May 1, 1999, Marija Sanderling, review of Cleaving, p. 97.

Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1996, Charles Solomon, review of Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly, May 24, 1991, review of Lizard, p. 59; January 9, 1995, review of Lasso the Moon, p. 64; January 8, 1996, Norman Oder, review of Salvation on Sand Mountain, p. 26; December 22, 1997, Paul Nathan, "Snakes and Salvation," review of Salvation on Sand Mountain, p. 19; March 22, 1999, review of Cleaving, p. 76; December 1, 2003, review of Redneck Riviera, p. 51.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1995, Susan R. Farber, review of Lasso the Moon, p. 20.

ONLINE

AllReaders.com, http://www.allreaders.com/ (August 26, 2005), review of Redneck Riviera.

Bookpage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (August 26, 2005), Alan Prince, "A Son Reclaims His Father's Dream," review of Redneck Riviera.

Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (August 26, 2005), review of Redneck Riviera.

Portland Mercury Online, http://portlandmercury.com/ (January 8, 2004), review of Redneck Riviera.

OTHER

Writing Today, Alabama Public Television, interview with Don Noble, April, 1995.