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Mon December 6, 2004
The protagonist of Inman Majors' second novel, Wonderdog, is Devaney "Dev" Degraw, who is an unhappy, and at present unsuccessful, attorney in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and also the son of the governor of Alabama. Dev is going through an especially tough time.
By Don Noble
There is no greater virtue a novel can have than a great opening paragraph:
"Like everyone else in the world I am a lawyer.
And like everyone else in the world, I'd rather do just about anything else than practice law. Be that as it may, a client, or rather a potential client, has managed to slip past my normally reliable secretary and now waits, litigation etched across his yeoman face, for perhaps the worst legal advice the state of Alabama has to offer. Seriously, I'm not good."
The protagonist of Inman Majors' second novel, Wonderdog, is Devaney "Dev" Degraw, who is, as stated, an unhappy, and at present unsuccessful, attorney in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and also the son of the governor of Alabama. Dev is going through an especially tough time. He is divorced from his wife, Polly, who is on the verge of remarrying, and is in a state of perpetual sadness over his separation from his daughter Katie.
He lives on Riverside Drive, bets unsuccessfully on NBA games, and drinks at the student bars on the Strip, at places coyly named McRae's, with its bad bands and cigarette smoke, and The Bear's Den, bars which all the cognoscenti will recognize as Egan's and the Houndstooth; there he plays television trivia games with graduate students as unhappy as he is.
Dev insists he has absolutely no interest in politics himself but demonstrates some intuitive political savvy in several scenes, mainly having to do with whether or not Alabama should have a lottery.
Majors, who came to Tuscaloosa after his BA at Vanderbilt to take an MFA in creative writing, lived on Riverside Drive and did three years of research on the Strip to prepare himself for this novel. He knows how to do research. He knows the late night territory and captures it frighteningly well--the frat boys in party tee shirts and ball caps, the sorority girls and their Jaegermeister, it's all here.
Inman Majors also knows how to build a novel. Wonderdog is constructed, in scene after scene. It is first-person, yes, but not a meandering, nostalgic recollection.
Dev Degraw is present in every scene, and some are wonderful: Majors begins with the incident in Dev's law office, followed by a scene in Montgomery at a political fund-raiser, then a particularly painful, funny episode in which Dev goes to the newsstand on Greensboro Avenue, called here Mr. Chuck's, to buy pornography and runs into his ex-mother-in-law, who is there to pick up the newspaper.
His careening from one embarrassing situation to the next reminded me strongly of the character Sebastian Dangerfield in J. P. Donleavy's novel. The Ginger Man, as did the syncopated style: "She smiles. Yes the blood will tell. Attention will wane, young love rarely lasts, a mule will never win the Kentucky Derby, and governor's mansion or no governor's mansion, no Degraw will ever pass muster in the Tuscaloosa Yacht Club."
It is always good to explain the title of the book you are reviewing. When Dev Degraw was just a boy, he played Billy Tucker in Bayou Dog, perhaps the worst television show in history, a rip-off imitation of Lassie, filled with lines like "Hurry, Thor, run fetch Pa." Degraw was terrible, as was his television father, Chad Kingston, and his television mom, Candy Lake, but the dog, Thor, was wonderful.
Majors brings his novel to a spectacular conclusion, not something all young novelists know how to do, by bringing together the governor, who, we're told, really doesn't want to run for re-election, Chad, Candy, and the grandson of Thor the dog at a Bayou Dog reunion on McFarland Boulevard. There is, by the end, romance for Dev, hope for the future, and, after a novel pretty loaded with alcoholism, random sex, and despair, some good feeling.
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.