Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Southern tale, better than naked art

My buddy John Martin Ramsey says that I go to the Bistro at the Bijou because I like nude art. If you've been there, you know what he means.

Funny line, yes. But, not really. I like the food. And, it's usually quiet on a sleepy summer weekday afternoon.

Thus it was today, when I met Fountain City historian Dr. Jim Tumblin there just after 5. I was nursing a cold beverage when Dr. Jim arrived. He spent the day downtown researching a column.

Dr. Jim seemed to enjoy his gumbo. I ordered an excellent fish sandwich (I think it was halibut). We laughed about local politics. Jim told me about a terrible rock band he went to hear last week. "They didn't rock, so I went home," says our favorite octogenarian.

It was a nice way to escape the heat. Boy, has that heat shown its face early this year, as if August has morphed into June, two months too soon.

Could have stayed in the Bistro for another hour or two, but I came downtown to hear Inman Majors read from his excellent new novel, "The Millionaires." It is a fine book.

Majors didn't say much about the novel's obvious connection to the Jake and C.H. Butcher banking scandal of the early 1980s. And, although it is certainly there, that Butcher stuff isn't the entire picture. From what he said tonight, Majors did what any writer worth a damn does -- scribbles what he knows. I suspect that has as much to do with his characters as anybody associated with that colorful clan from Maynardville.

But, those who remember the Butcher brothers, and the World's Fair, and the Knoxville of what seems like a bygone era will find much here that is familiar. At its best, though, "The Millionaires" is less about plot and more about character, piercing into sibling rivalries and ties running deeper than blood. Majors said tonight he has always been fascinated by his parents' generation -- the Southerners who made the leap from the family farm to the suburbs.

Others have criticized his technique -- not using apostrophes, writing some chapters as a screenplay -- but all of that is what makes this novel vibrant. Ignore the naysayers.

As all good storytellers should do, Majors keeps his audience glued to his story (I once stayed up reading until 7:30 a.m.). The two brothers at the center of the tale -- bankers Roland and J.T. Cole -- are what they are, but I found myself drawn to Roland's wife Libby, and to the central character of the book, political operative Mike Teague.

Libby handled her life with a dignified, understated grace. She knew about Roland's affairs. She knew about going home alone. She knew about unfulfilled dreams. The story ends before we know, but I suspect Libby endured her husband's fall from grace without so much as a public flinch. I thought about Libby long after I turned out the light.

Teague is the empathetic character in this tragic tale. Teague is a guy doing a job, fighting to keep his optimism, struggling to do what he thinks is right. In the end he is a victim of someone else's ambition run amok. And, yet, he lands on his feet.

I don't want to do the usual boring synopsis and I don't want to tell you much else. If you like good writing -- no, scratch that -- if you like GREAT writing, go buy this book. If you grew up in Knoxville, Inman's tale is a must read. If you are a political junkie, and like Southern tales of power and corruption and complexity, run don't walk to your local store or to Amazon.com.

The book is called "The Millionaires" and the author is Inman Majors.

Be forewarned -- it will keep you up nights. It might even make you do something really crazy. Like leave a cool bistro on a hot summer afternoon.

So much for that naked art.

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