Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Review: The Millionaires by Inman Majors

The Millionaires

by Inman Majors
WW Norton, 2009
480 pages

Reviewed by Kate Petersen

Even if the book jacket didn’t proclaim this a southern Great Gatsby, it doesn’t take a reader long to see that in his third novel, The Millionaires, Inman Majors is invoking that cautionary tale of what sudden money can do to you. “You can have old money, and you can have no money, but you damn sure can’t have new money,” quips a character early on, and when Majors takes us to the gates of the inevitable party, and the “great house glows like a tiara to greet guests who ride up the long and curving drive,” you can’t help but think: Gatsby.

The Millionaires follows brothers Roland and J.T. Cole, hardscrabble country boys born to a dry-goodsman-turned-banker who establish a banking empire in the fictitious town of Glennville, in eastern Tennessee. The novel spans Roland’s 1978 gubernatorial campaign, the brother’s ultimately successful bid to bring the 1983 World’s Fair to Glennville, and the rise of their banking empire against the backdrop of the U.S. savings and loan crisis. To run their campaign, the Cole brothers hire Vanderbilt golden boy and veteran politico Mike Teague, who’s connected in Nashville and provides the establishment credentials the backcountry brothers lack. Majors has created a big, believable world here.

But beyond the familiar plot points of a new-money fable, want—the centrifugal force at the heart of Gatsby and other American class novels—is largely absent here. One never doubts that the brothers want the Expo to happen, and for it to be a success, but it’s never clear whether they want it to go because it’s good for business, for the sake of the win, or to prove something to someone.

Late in the novel, Roland tells Teague during a nighttime tennis match that seeing his father “getting the high hat” from city bankers rubbed him the wrong way as a young man. But as a motive, this seems too dilute to support the empire it inspired. There are scenes that suggest Roland wants to get back to the land where he was raised, and that J.T. yearns for the simple appraisals of boyhood [“his father knew they wouldn’t always do their best [but] that he would love them anyway”], but these scenes seem more diversions from the brothers’ political and business escapades than their fuel.

Majors has crafted a world that is all ambition but very little want, save the prolific affairs the men engage in. And even there, Majors undercuts any allowance for real desire. When J.T. muses that the only reason he could cheat on his wife whom he loved and respected “came down to an undue fondness for strange pussy,” Majors seems to say: this isn’t desire, this is the fast lane. And Teague’s old affair with Valerie, a power-player in Nashville’s political circles, is explained by her ability to let him play a Fallen Man when they first took up. But if this was want, it’s historical, and like ruins, we are made to guess.

The women here, mainly wives and mistresses, are a spirited bunch, undifferentiated in their agreement that life is easier for their men. Inasmuch as they have desire, it is a reflexive one: a desire to get back to the time they were the most wanted thing. None of them are anymore, not even Teague’s “Cool Customer” Valerie. The Cole’s mother and sister are interesting peripheral characters, but Majors never really seems to find a place for them beyond humanizing the swindling duo.

Perhaps because the story is such a straightforward one—ambition which o’erleaps itself—Major’s near-constant shift in point of view end up feeling more vertigo than verity. Moving often between characters’ vantages, Majors sweeps frequently into a too-formal omniscience (think the overly-basso voiceover in certain romantic comedies): “Setting, yes, setting and a quick update. For time has passed like invisible ink into air.” Within a single scene, that omniscience—“Now the eye did not know where to go”— would tilt to the second person—“You walk in a crowd”—only to slip back into limited third in the next paragraph.

This ever-shifting point of view, coupled with Major’s experimental use of scene formats (studio format of a screenplay, subheads, and an unrhymed poem with line breaks) make a reader feel that neither she nor the characters on the page are to be completely trusted with the story. Like the hand in the dollhouse, you’re never allowed to forget for very long that Majors is setting the scene for you.

And that’s a shame, because these characters (bank fraud aside) should be trusted. They are intelligent and well-articulated people, especially Teague, whose loyalties and sensibilities made this reader sorry every time the narrative moved away from his limited-third charm.

But despite these weaknesses, Majors well-shaped plot and quick dialogue keep the reader engaged. His prose is lyric, luminous at times, and when he isn’t telling us what to look at, Majors can make us nostalgic for memories that aren’t even ours, the way a football game on an afternoon in early fall makes the men “feel a kind of happy longing, loose-limbed and prodigal, hand to wallet more readily than usual, memory and moment merged as nearly to perfection as this life allows.”


Kate Petersen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Pinch, Brevity, The Collagist, Quarterly West, Phoebe, Pearl, Best of the Web 2009, and The Fourth Genre: Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. She lives and works in Boston at a nonprofit organization working on health care reform, and writes for Postscript and Health Policy Hub.

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