“The Governor’s Lady”
Author: Robert Inman
Publisher: John F. Blair
Price: $26.95 (Cloth)
Novelist Bob Inman in interviews likes to describe himself as a simple storyteller, without overt pretensions to creating “literature.” This is a seemingly modest declaration but, really, being a first-rate storyteller is a fine achievement, harder than it looks. Indeed it should not look hard at all, and if the story fails to hold the reader’s interest it won’t matter if it is “literature” or not; few will read the book.
Finally, a book may tell a good story and in fact BE literature. Happily, these are not mutually exclusive categories.
“The Governor’s Lady,” Inman’s seventh book, is a terrific story, with a cast of unusual characters. It is not autobiographical, not “ripped from the headlines” but is drawn from Inman’s long experience as press secretary for Alabama Gov. Albert Brewer; in the University Relations Office at the University of Alabama while earning an MFA in creative writing; and from 20-plus years as a TV anchor for the Charlotte, N.C., station WBTV.
Inman places his novel in an unnamed Southern state, probably Alabama, with a little North Carolina thrown in.
Cooper Lanier, a woman, has just won the race for governor. It is swearing-in day.
Cooper’s husband, Pickett Lanier, was governor for two terms and is now beginning a run for president. Cooper’s father, Cleve Spainhour, was twice a successful and popular governor. She has big name recognition, but won the job honestly, in her own right, she thinks.
No Lurleen Wallace, Cooper means to BE the governor.
Cooper’s dying mother, Mickey, insists on moving in with Cooper, and announces her wishes: “For my funeral…I want a good band and an open bar.” The two don’t get along, hardly speak. Mickey asks forgiveness for her failures as a mother, but Cooper tells her “I wouldn’t have any idea where to start.”
But as the novel progresses their relationship will mend as will Cooper’s relationship to her own daughter, Alison, who also hated growing up in the mansion, the “fishbowl,” and especially resented how little time her parents had for her.
Inman gives Cooper a crisis on her first day as governor. A huge blizzard brings down power lines; a school bus goes off the road; lives are in danger all over the state. She opts to call out the National Guard but her orders are vetoed by someone.
From this moment forward, Cooper realizes her husband has betrayed her, lied to her steadily, intended her to be a puppet, a figurehead. He and his “Posse,” by secret pre-arrangement, mean to run the state from the campaign trail. This not a novel about a politician’s sexual infidelity; it is about money and power.
Cooper is angry and rebels. Aided by her mother, the consummate political insider, she takes control, firing Pickett’s minions–incompetent, lazy, greedy, crooked—and hiring her own people, including, as chief of staff, the aging, colorful and incorruptible capital city reporter Wheeler Kincaid. He’s relentless and knows “where all the bodies are buried.”
We also meet Mrs. Dinkins, the mansion’s chief housekeeper. Now a convicted murderess in her sixties, she “years ago carved up an abusive husband and stored his body parts in Saran Wrap in her freezer until relatives, beginning to suspect he wasn’t really on an extended fishing trip, called the sheriff.”
As Cooper uncovers the plot against her, and learns of some corrupt deals under way in the legislature, events trigger flashbacks. Inman handles these well, folding the flashbacks in seamlessly, especially recollections of her early years with Pickett. He was an easygoing, guitar-playing, fun-loving, beer-drinking professor at the university before he got bitten by the political bug.
Cooper recalls how she had rejected Woodrow Bannister, whom she almost married, and who is now lieutenant governor. As student body president, planning his career and compiling his rolodex while still an undergraduate, Woodrow was too political, she had thought. How ironic.
She remembers precious moments with her father who, sadly, when near death and speaking of his long life in politics, told Cooper: “We are the sum of our regrets.
“ The “lady governor” is determined this will not be her fate.
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.”