Dennis Covington

Dennis Covington (1948-2024) was an award-winning author from Alabama known for his ability to delve into his personal life and idiosyncratic native South in his work. He has authored five books and been a freelance journalist, notably reporting on the political conflicts in Central America during the 1980s.

Covington was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on October 30, 1948, to Sam Scott Covington, a supervisor at Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, and Ellaree Russell Covington, a homemaker and visual artist. He was one of four children. He earned a bachelor of arts in English from the University of Virginia in 1970 and after graduation was drafted in the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana, as a court reporter. After leaving the military in 1972, he entered the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, studying under acclaimed fiction writers Raymond Carver and John Cheever and earning a master of fine arts. Covington taught English at Miles College from 1974 to 1976 and at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, from 1976 to 1978. He married fellow Birmingham native and author Vicki Marsh in 1977. The couple would have two daughters, and Vicki would also write several novels set in Alabama. In 1978, the couple moved back to Alabama, after Dennis was hired by the English Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Beginning in 1983, Covington made the first of a dozen trips to Central America as a freelance journalist. His dispatches from the civil war in El Salvador and other conflicts in the region appeared in the Scripps-Howard and Newhouse newspapers. He also authored a profile for Vogue of Violeta Chamorro, Nicaraguan president-elect and prominent critic of the Sandinista government.

In 1991, he published a young adult novel, Lizard, which was a coming-of-age story about Lucius Sims, a physically deformed boy who looks like a lizard. Lucius suffers and triumphs over multiple forms of discrimination resulting from his physical abnormality, including being sent to a school in Leesville, Louisiana, known at the time as the Louisiana State School for Retarded Boys. Lizard won the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel in 1991 and the 1994 Alabama Author Award. A 1995 theatrical adaptation of Lizard, commissioned and first produced by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, won the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwriting Award, sponsored by the National Theatre Conference. Covington followed Lizard with another young adult novel, Lasso the Moon. It is the story of April Hunter and the maturation of her relationships with her father and a mysterious Salvadoran refugee.

In 1995, Covington published perhaps his best-known work, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, which chronicles the lives of Pentecostal snake-handlers. A work of nonfiction, it arose out of Covington's freelance reporting for The New York Times on the 1992 Scottsboro, Jackson County, court case in which a snake-handling preacher was convicted of attempting to murder his wife by forcing her hand into a box filled with rattlesnakes. Salvation on Sand Mountain is an honest portrait of a complicated group of people and of Covington's spiritual journey with them. Praised for its lyrical, sympathetic, and personal treatment of the snake handlers of Appalachia, Salvation on Sand Mountain was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and won the 1996 Boston Book Review's Anne Rea Jewell Non-Fiction Prize. Covington continued writing in the autobiographical vein, publishing in 1999 with his wife Vicki a deeply personal book, Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage. It recounts their complex relationship, addressing such topics as drug use and infidelity.

In 2003, Covington took a position teaching creative writing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. The following year, he published the autobiographical adventure, Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws and the Demise of an American Dream. The work recounts Covington's attempts to claim his inheritance, 2.5 acres of worthless Florida scrubland his father bought in the 1960s in a real estate scam. Covington populates the narrative with lively, eccentric, and unusual characters, a common trait of his writing. Covington also focuses on his southern roots, setting a dangerous and corrupt pursuit of justice in a swampy, lyrically described Florida landscape. In 2005, Covington served as one of five judges for the National Book Award for nonfiction. He and Vicki divorced that year, as well. Covington retired from Texas Tech as an emeritus professor in 2017.

Over the course of his career, Covington's work appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Vogue, Esquire, Redbook, the Georgia Review, and the Oxford American. He received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. In 2019 he was awarded the University of Alabama’s Clarence Cason Award in Nonfiction. Covington died from Lewy body dementia in Lubbock on April 14, 2024. He was unable to finish his memoir about life with the disease because of the progression of his illness.

Works by Covington

Lizard (1991)

Lasso the Moon (1995)

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (1995)

Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage (1999)

Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws and the Demise of an America Dream (2004)

Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World (2016)  

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