GROWING UP SOUTHERN Gilbert has no trouble finding plenty to write about in her own life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What Southern girls can grow up to be, some would have you believe, involves a pre-ordained pecking order based on looks and the kind of smarts it takes to wield a curling iron. At the very top is becoming a model. Right below that is the stewardess option. And several more steps down is the ultimate fall back position: beautician.

Of course, if all else fails, you can do what Sarah Gilbert did: become a novelist and write about this subculture of Southern redneck women.

That, and a pretty face, can get you far in this world. Why, just a couple of weeks ago, Ms. Gilbert got to be Miss Five Points in the Columbia, S.C., St. Patrick's Day parade -- something she mentions in the same amused yet flattered way in which she talks about fellow Ahm-a-Suthner author Roy Blount Jr.'s taking her to a chi-chi party in New York or an editor named Jacqueline Onassis expressing an interest in her work.

Ms. Gilbert, 32, graduate of the Millie Lewis Modeling Agency and former beautician (she somehow missed the stewardess thing), straddles both worlds these days -- rubbing elbows with the New York writerly set, yet still living in the grits-and-grins South that provides the backdrop for her comic novels, the just published "Dixie Riggs" and last year's "Hairdo."

They are novels about Southern women by a woman who, despite spending some of her high school years in Baltimore, is ** Southern to the bone.

"I've become a local celebrity. The rumors are flying," Ms. Gilbert said, in a lazy, drawly voice, about her status in Columbia gossip circles. "One rumor is I've become a hooker on 42nd Street. Ha -- I never made it past 40th Street."

But as any Southerner knows, truth is stranger than fiction, and ++ Ms. Gilbert's own life has provided ample material for her novels.

Her books are littered with autobiographical references, such as a boyfriend who is a body builder and aspiring televangelist, a modeling school of grandiloquent claims, and the usual beauty parlors and Baptist dunkings of the stereotypical Southern landscape.

"There's a truth to a stereotype," said the big-haired, blue-eyed Ms. Gilbert, who was in Baltimore promoting her book Wednesday. "But you want to get to that truth and make it come alive."

She was a beautician and former drop-out, giving college about its fifth try several years ago, when she landed in a writing class at the University of South Carolina.

One of the short stories she wrote for the class was discovered by Mr. Blount, who included it in a humor anthology. She befriended another visiting writer, James Wolcott, and through such connections ended up publishing "Hairdo," a tale of competing beauty parlors in a small town with one Hardee's, four gas stations and not much else.

"It's been real Cinderella," she said in an interview during a book promotion tour that, while it includes stops in New York City and Washington, more often lands her in the likes of Myrtle Beach, Raleigh/Durham, Charleston, Pittsboro and -- three different /^ times! -- Columbia.

Like many writers, she rejects the genre label; in her case, that of the Southern writer. Yet that is what her books unmistakably are all about -- characters named Earline, Miss Ruby and Buck living in locales like Renee Dupree's World of Fashion Modeling of Myrtle Beach or the Tres Chic Beauty Salon of Stuckey, S.C.

"Dixie Riggs," for example, tells the tale of the title character and her conniving best friend Sparkle, their interferin' mommas, Trina and LeDaire, and some of the men they share, such as Buck

Speed III and Donnie Sessions. It's one of those books in which as much thought seems to have gone into what to name the characters as what to do with them.

She defends her women characters, who tend to be low-rent, back-stabbing and none too bright.

"I think [Dixie and Sparkle] are bright women who are not in a . . . bright class. They haven't had the chances that others might," she said. "So what happens is that's where the manipulation comes in. But I don't think it's vicious manipulation on either part."

Not if you don't consider it vicious to steal your best friend's guy or get her thrown out of modeling school. Not if you don't consider it vicious to mix oil into your best friend's hair spray and unscrew the heels on her shoes just before she goes out on the runway for an outdoor modeling gig.

Perhaps it's a Southern thing. And Ms. Gilbert does see a subtle distinction between Southern women and their Yankee counterparts.

"I think we all sit by the phone and wait for him to call," she said in seemingly utter seriousness. "We all have the same desires and despairs. Sometimes I think Southern women just dramatize it more. Southerners -- and this is a sweeping generalization -- tend to choose better words and snappier phrasing. I think it's because it's so hot, you want to make every word count."

Her own life is a story in itself. One of four children, she grew up a sort of academic brat, as her father moved between jobs teaching at Harvard, Emory and other colleges. After her parents divorced, her mother raised the kids through some tough times. Ms. Gilbert considers herself something of a semi-juvenile delinquent. During one bad-girl phase, her mother sent her to live with psychologist-relatives in Baltimore, hoping that would straighten her out.

What it did was make the Northern High School student an Orioles fan.

"I remember when [Doug] DeCinces took over for Brooks Robinson at third," she said of this momentous 1976 event.

She ended up going to beauty school -- scandalizing her educated parents -- but ultimately got back to college and now is finishing up a master's degree and working on her third novel.

But while Ms. Gilbert is now far from the model-stewardess-beautician mode, she still seems to buy into the beauty-based pecking order. Her looks, and other women's looks, do matter, she said.

"I know if a really good looking woman comes into a room, I'm sort of off-put by them," she said frankly. "So maybe if you're attractive, you generate the same kind of feelings."

And, in fact, looks got her into writing.

"I went back to school after all these jobs. But I didn't do much except sit in class and do some of the writing exercises," Ms. Gilbert recalled. "One day I met a guy in class who had a beautiful ex-girlfriend. She had just broken up with him. I thought, I can never have better hair than her, or better thighs than her, so I guess I have to write a better story."

*From 'Dixie Riggs' by Sarah Gilbert

I think I'm a redneck. I'm not really sure yet. But I have this sneaking suspicion, standing there in my fake rabbit fur waist-length coat and my black miniskirt, that I am a true redneck. My momma, I am sure, is a redneck. You can see it in the way she walks, the clothes she buys, the different wigs she wears and the way she hits town in the middle of the afternoon, right in the middle of my already screwed-up life. In a word, she is TROUBLE.

She goes to Buck's looking for me. I am not there. She goes to Sparkle's momma's beauty shop looking for me. I am not there. But there she finds her true kindred spirit, Sparkle's momma, Trina. They are two redneck peas in one redneck pod. I am not sure who has more divorces behind them, Trina or Momma, but they hit it off right away, and right away Trina is showing Momma a new way to wear her hair and telling her all about me and Sparkle and our X-rated porno pictures. Momma, I can tell, is pleased with this news.

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