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Thu February 17, 2011
Family Meeting: A Novel
When a writer wishes to have a number of characters reveal their stories, some structuring device must be found. Through an omniscient narrator, DeMott makes the reader privy to the conversations at the actual meetings of the family and to the various private conversations of the participants.
By Don Noble
Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio
When a writer wishes to have a number of characters reveal their stories, some structuring device must be found. Chaucer has a group of pilgrims entertain each other on the road to Canterbury. Boccaccio puts a group of people in northern Italy in a country house to wait out the plague, and their stories constitute "The Decameron." Miles DeMott has chosen a different and thoroughly modern way.
The premise of "Family Meeting" is this.
Pacific Mergers, an LA-based venture capital firm, contemplates buying Plantation Trust, a family-held bank that has operated successfully in Charleston for generations, since before the Civil War. The patriarch, Augustus Sterling Camber IV, has recently died and although the Old Man had a daughter, Margaret, and two grown living grandchildren, one of whom is actually a banker, the family seems disinclined to take over management.
Pacific Mergers hires Tony Gordon, a new-ish Ph.D. with a specialty in family systems theory, to "fly to South Carolina and crawl inside the heads of these people, examine the various dysfunctions, and report back on the potential threat of the family dynamic to their investment in the family's bank." Tony meets with the family members collectively and individually, and on this structure DeMott hangs much of his novel.
Tony is a lifetime Californian and in the early sections of the novel DeMott tries for a comedy of manners, Dixie/Yankee humor. Tony "had never been to the South and? didn't feel the lesser for it." Even though he knows it's silly, he finds himself checking to see whether everyone is wearing shoes.
This is only mildly funny and actually constitutes an attempt, by a Southern writer, at humor based on the stereotyping of non-Southerners' stereotyping of Southern ways, dress and speech. And since the setting is Charleston, the mother nest for Southern-ness, in what must be the Francis Marion Hotel, it is not all that strange for Tony to be taken aback from time to time.
DeMott's strengths do not lie in wittiness. The very first sentence of the novel is off-putting: "Tony Gordon tugged at his emerging beard and squinted discerningly." You can't tug at something just emerging, and squinting is associated with poor vision or smoke in your eye, not discernment.
This novel is not a comedy in spite of some reviewers' desire to see it that way.
"Family Meeting" does have strengths, however.
Tony holds the family meetings, as instructed, and over the brief period of a weekend, he and the reader learn a great deal, entertaining and shocking, about the Camber clan.
Through an omniscient narrator, DeMott makes the reader privy to the conversations at the actual meetings of the family and to the various private conversations of the participants. We learn?no surprise?that the patriarch was not merely powerful and willful, he was downright evil.
Margaret's husband, The Rev. Walker Middleton, is a lifetime Baptist minister who is defrocked within the first few pages for chronic philandering. Their son, Ben, is a drunk, married to a wife named Twinkle, prompting Tony to think, not unreasonably, "where do they get those names?" Daughter Augusta is the headmistress of a private school in Greenville, but Old Gus would never have imagined having the family business run by a woman.
Margaret, Walker, Ben and Augusta are not the only distressed characters. As the novel progresses we learn more about the biographies of Old Gus, about others who worked for the bank, and about Walker's Chapel Hill college roommate "Uncle Robert." Some of these stories are bizarre and, I have to say, intriguing.
DeMott has a lively imagination and some story-telling ability. There were revelations of grotesque egotism and cruelty, drug-smuggling, rape and incest, sexual reorientation, and dubious paternity. The whole package finally jumped the shark and fell over the top into melodrama, I thought, but was a good read and a worthy first novel nevertheless.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark" and the editor of "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."