Covington, Vicki 1952–
COVINGTON, Vicki 1952–
PERSONAL: Born October 22, 1952, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Jack (a metallurgical engineer) and Katherine (a teacher; maiden name, Jennings) Marsh; married Dennis Covington (a writer), December 24, 1977; children: Ashley, Laura. Education: University of Alabama, B.A., 1974, M.S.W., 1976.
ADDRESSES: Home—Birmingham, AL. Agent—Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: University of Alabama—Birmingham, social worker in substance abuse programs, 1978–88; writer, 1988–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fellow of National Endowment for the Arts, 1988.
Gathering Home, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1990, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1999.
Bird of Paradise, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1991, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rogue, LA), 1999.
Night Ride Home, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992, Thorndike Press (Thorndike, ME), 1993, published as Night Ride Home: A Novel, Baylor State University Press (Waco, TX), 2001.
The Last Hotel for Women, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
(With husband, Dennis Covington) Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage, North Point Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Women in a Man's World, Crying: Essays, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 2002.
Also author of several short stories, essays, and a stage adaptation of The Last Hotel for Women. Contributor to periodicals such as Southern Humanities Review, New Yorker, and Southern Living.
SIDELIGHTS: Through the prism of family life in the American South, Vicki Covington's novels reflect the upheaval of social and political change, from world war to the civil rights battle at home. She is frequently noted for her realistic portrayals that eschew romanticism with a keen yet compassionate eye.
In Bird of Paradise, her second book, Covington created the memorable Honey Shugart, an open-hearted woman who has had her fair share of hard times, including life with her now-deceased alcoholic husband and the death of her sister. Honey worries as much about what to feed a visitor as she does about the possible commercial development of her childhood home. She makes sense of the world around her with simple aphorisms that reveal the flavor of her rural Alabama roots. "Honey's story provides the enormous pleasure of a small world skillfully, gracefully, and gently observed," wrote Regina Weinreich in her review for the New York Times Book Review.
Perseverance in a claustrophobic mining town is a key theme of Night Ride Home. The cast of characters include a father who could well be expected to express opposition to his daughter's wedding by showing up with a gun, a kleptomaniacal mother with a velvety singing voice, the two newlyweds, and the eyes and the ears of the town, the prostitute Bolivia Ivey. "Without getting all sappy about it, Vicki Covington manages to convey a community too brave to admit defeat, even when it smacks them in the face," commented Joyce R. Slater in the Chicago Tribune.
Her 1996 novel, The Last Hotel for Women, was widely reviewed and generally well received. This "strange hybrid of politics and longing," as described by Alice Truax of the New York Times Book Review, is set in Alabama, as are all of Covington's stories. Covington takes on one of the most contentious periods in southern history: the battle over African-American civil rights in the 1960s. The protagonist, Dinah Fraley, has close ties to both sides of the battle. The first is with one of the South's most excoriated officials, public safety commissioner "Bull" Connor; the other is with Angel, an injured freedom rider.
Connor had been close to Dinah's mother, a madam who formerly operated her business in the house the Fraley family has transformed into a hotel. This intimate view of a troubling historical figure highlights Covington's skill at characterization. Without whitewashing Connor's racial hatred, the author paints a picture of an emotionally hobbled man. Humanizing "Bull" Connor is a "bit of a feat," observed Bettina Drew in the Washington Post Book World. "[Covington] has written a novel where the larger problem of segregation is seen as a society's emotional response gone awry."
The Fraley family's toil to survive the turmoil of the 1960s depicts the South's own struggle to either persist in the past or look forward to a fresh future. In a BookPage review, Laurie Parker noted that Covington "is a master of undercurrent, telling one story on the surface while tapping into something deeper and more powerful underneath."
In Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage, Covington collaborates with her writer-husband, Dennis Covington, to present a probing, often painful, but ultimately positive memoir of their twenty-one years together. In a Booklist review of Cleaving, Danise Hoover pondered the couples' choice of title, remarking that the nature of "cleaving" reflects both the adherence and tearing of this particular marriage. Through alternating perspectives, the Covingtons reveal the difficulties with which they have dealt, such as alcoholism, and the injuries they have inflicted upon one another, such as multiple infidelities. Not all aspects of their marriage are dark, however. While they unearth the pain of infertility, they temper it with the birth of their daughters. The authors also discuss spiritual redemption and their dedication to religion. While the nature of the topics discussed is serious, the authors inject the memoir with a quiet humor that may explain why they are still married.
Cleaving left some readers hopeful that marriages do not always inevitably merge with the myriad of painful divorces in American society, and that true love can overcome some of life's most injuring adversities. "Despite the many painful betrayals they've put each other through," commented reviewer Marija Sanderling in Library Journal, "they have no visible bitterness, and their love and respect for one another is touching." Some reviewers thought the book was deficient in the muscle of its message. While Amanda Urban commented in Publishers Weekly that "both spouses write with simple grace" and that "some passages are remarkably insightful about the institution of marriage," Urban concluded that "the writing of each projects an edge of narcissism and selfishness, with blame easily assigned and credit only grudgingly granted." Most reviewers felt that the writers' candor provided the book with an undeniable force. "Some will be offended by the Covingtons' behavior," wrote Rosalind S. Fournier for BookPage. "Some might find them maddeningly unapologetic. Yet Cleaving, unfailingly honest, will strike a chord with anyone who's ever marveled that no matter how imperfect and mismanaged, life—and, in their case, marriage—does go on."
Covington's next book, Woman in a Man's World, Crying, is a collection of essays originally published in Alabama's Birmingham News. Covington's essays cover a multitude of topics women often muse in the midst of life—girlhood becoming womanhood, one's children growing into adults, the value of the familiar, spirituality, the inevitable death of one's parents—enriching these deliberations with a comforting, southern sisterhood-style tone. "Yankee readers may grow impatient with Covington's frequent evocations of her southern roots as both springboard and rationale for what otherwise might be considered universal realities," wrote one Publishers Weekly contributor. "But those who enjoy pondering the small things in life, who long for the simple days … will find a kindred spirit here," the contributor concluded. Of the veracity of Covington's prose, Pam Kingsbury commented in Library Journal that she "not only wears her heart on her sleeve, she urges everyone to do the same." Kingsbury concluded in her review that "the collection, though a bit uneven and repetitive, is also often thought-provoking, poignant, and richly satisfying."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, April 15, 1999, Danise Hoover, review of Cleaving, p. 1501.
Bookpage, February, 1996.
Chicago Tribune, September 14, 1992, section 5, p. 3.
Entertainment Weekly, May 21, 1999, "This Week," review of Cleaving, p. 70.
Library Journal, May 1, 1999, Marija Sanderling, review of Cleaving, p. 97; November 15, 2002, Pam Kingsbury, review of review of Women in a Man's World, Crying, p. 80.
Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1990, p. 16; April 7, 1996, p. 9; August 22, 1999, Polly A. Morrice, review of Cleaving, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1996, p. 58; January 8, 1996, p. 26; March 22, 1999, Amanda Urban, review of Cleaving, p. 76; November 25, 2002, review of Women in a Man's World, Crying, p. 56.
Washington Post Book World, June 2, 1996, p. 9.
Alabama Bound Web site, http://www.alabamabound.org/ (January 26, 2004), "2000 Author: Vicki Covington."
Alabama Public Radio Web site, http://www.wual.ua.edu/ (January 27, 2004), Alabama Bound review of Woman in a Man's World, Crying.
BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (January 27, 2004), Rosalind S. Fournier, review of Cleaving.
Louisiana State University Press Web site, http://www.lsu.edu/ (January 26, 2004), "Voices of the South: Bird of Paradise."