Memoir, criticism, magical realism, and poetry have all been used to describe Where the North Sea Touches Alabama by Allen C. Shelton. It was published in fall 2013 by the University of Chicago Press and nominated for the PROSE awards.
Shelton, associate professor of sociology, describes the book as fictocriticism—a blurring of the line between fiction and criticism, according to Shelton. "I do sociology, but I write like a novelist," he said. Yet North Sea is also memoir, rooted in Shelton’s native Alabama soil and the lives and deaths of parents, dogs, and friends. And, as in the case of artist Patrik Keim, their occasional resurrections.
Is there any sense in which the events in the book are true? "A camera would not pick up a good bit of it," Shelton said, "but it's an absolutely true book to the heart. It's a love letter to the people I loved and lost."
Shelton’s own narrative is, like North Sea, disrupted and nonlinear. As a young man with a master’s degree in public administration, he headed back to his grandfather’s Black Angus beef cattle farm, located near Jacksonville, Alabama. “I worked as a farm laborer and a builder until my mid-30s,” said Shelton. (Sometime in there, he was also a candidate for the Episcopal priesthood.) After a bad horseback-riding accident, and with encouragement from a member of his church, Shelton earned his Ph.D. His first job in academia lasted until he got entangled in an athletics scandal. Tangential though his involvement was, it was enough to cost him his job and set him on the road as a traveling academic.
He landed at Buffalo State in 1998, where he continued to write—in longhand, with a fountain pen, on graph paper. His first book, Dreamworlds of Alabama, was published in 2007 by the Minnesota University Press. It was well received; Buffalo News reviewer R.D. Pohl called it “rich, haunting, and often humorous.”
To be described as sociological fictocriticism, however, North Sea must also contain something of sociology. Luis Jaramillo writes in Tweed’s Book Blog that Shelton’s personal history is the fictocriticism and that the book touches on “…the works of many artists, writers, and philosophers, including Freud, Benjamin, Proust, Kafka, Marx, Weber, Sebald, Canetti, Brian Eno, Beck, Joyce, Durkheim, and George Simmel—which is where the sociology part comes in.”
Yet Where the North Sea Touches Alabama is compelling even if the references to intellectuals and artists ring bells only faintly. That is perhaps because of the poetic precision that laces the book in sentences like: "The unnamed creek that cut behind the Big House is the spinal column for my mapping." Or "The humming of the tape sounds like the murmur of incoherent animals deep underground."
According to Doug Mitchell, University of Chicago editor, North Sea was nominated for the PROSE awards for several reasons. Mitchell noted that the book crosses social science and humanities methods and themes, and that it is part literature, part autobiography, and part sociology. "There's a part of me that is ornery enough to enjoy busting the convention boundaries of things like disciplines, so I thought it would be a good idea to nominate this one if only as a prime example of multidisciplinarity," added Mitchell. "Also, the PROSE awards honor books that are well written and appeal both within and outside specific academic disciplines."