Mon February 9, 2009
The Millionaires: A Novel of the New South, by Inman Majors
Majors has published The Millionaires, set in Knoxville in the 1970s, and it is a marvel. The Millionaires, with its wry, sophisticated narrative voice, a voice in full control, is the best, most fully accomplished new novel I have read in perhaps three years.
By Don Noble
Inman Majors is a native Tennessean, was educated at Vanderbilt and then came to Tuscaloosa to take the MFA degree in creative writing. After completing the MFA, Majors published his respectable debut novel, Swimming in Sky, set in Knoxville.
Majors' second novel was set here in Tuscaloosa, on Riverside Drive and in Egan's bar. Wonderdog is wonderfully funny, full of comedy and satire. The protagonist is a young, undedicated, restless lawyer whose father is the governor of Alabama.
Now Majors has published The Millionaires, set in Knoxville in the 1970s, and it is a marvel. The Millionaires, with its wry, sophisticated narrative voice, a voice in full control, is the best, most fully accomplished new novel I have read in perhaps three years. Let me begin by saying what it is not, for some early reviewers seem to have got it wrong. Millionaires is not a satire of Southern society, high or low. It is not a partially successful comedy. It is not a comedy at all, although Majors' formidable sense of humor is unleashed from time to time.
Millionaires is an intimately knowledgeable study of the Southern class system, the old money, the newly rich, the small town come to the big city, those used to political power and those newly amassing power. It is serious business and it is very good. Millionaires is in fact a kind of Southern Great Gatsby, by which I do not mean it is a rewriting or a parody or an imitation. What I mean is that the themes of money, power, and class are examined in Glenville (read Knoxville), Tennessee, instead of Long Island, New York, and fifty years later.
The protagonists of The Millionaires are the Cole brothers, Roland and J.T. These men are not Snopeses, although it is possible their grandparents were. The Coles have expanded from owning a small town bank to a chain of banks, an empire. They own office buildings, an airplane, mansions. At Roland's mansion there is a grand party the splendor of which would remind any literate reader of one of Gatsby's. There are an orchestra, hordes of guests, lavish food and drink, and at one point Roland takes Mike Teague, his campaign manager and, in this novel, the Nick Carraway figure, down to the tennis courts and they talk.
Roland "stretched out his arms, taking in the whole of the estate and the lights and the night sky above them" and says "I mean, am I really standing here? Tell me. Am I?"
Roland runs for Governor of Tennessee and fails, but he and his brother successfully bring the World's Fair to Glenville, a huge accomplishment, and this might give Roland another shot at the governorship.
Where Faulkner examined the class conflict inherent in moving up from the bottom, from the hamlet to the town, Majors is examining these issues at the highest level. The Coles are rich, but not really welcome. Sons of the Confederacy and Old Money are supposed to rule Tennessee, not the newly-arrived Coles. J.T. is still too much of a good ole boy, with too much drinking and too many women. Roland, although smoother, is deemed not yet quite acceptable.
The Cole brothers are ambitious, dreamers, in their way idealists, but the hard real world will do them in. Financially overextended, they stretch the banking laws, to say the least, leaving themselves vulnerable. Finally The Millionaires moves towards tragedy, as forces against them grow and, in spite of their charisma, vision, energy, and huge animal appeal, they are undone.
Teague, their incomplete confidante, is injured along with them. He is rightly angry at the brothers, but he can actually understand their dreams. It would not have surprised me to hear Teague shout across a green lawn, to the Cole brothers, towards the end, "you two are worth the whole damn bunch put together."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.