08 January 2009

The Millionaires by Inman Majors

The Millionaires tells the story of two brothers, J.T. and Roland Cole, of questionable reputation, bringing the World's Fair Expo to Tennessee in the 1980's and delving into gubernatorial politics.

While the actual prose itself was mechanically well-written (though the lack of quotation marks for spoken words kept me backtracking to see if a character was thinking or speaking, which was annoying), for me there was no real spark of life in the characters. Then there was the odd "cut scenes" between chapters. They were laid out like a movie script, not easy to follow and, far from segueing the chapters, felt stilted, distracting and unnecessary. Also the "New South" feel was, to a life-long Southerner, not realistic and somewhat stereotyped.

In addition to this, there was the problem of the plot. It is, quite frankly, an almost to the date and circumstance retelling of the life of C.H. and Jake Butcher. The Butcher brothers were quite famous in the 1980's, at least in Tennessee. Just like J.T. and Roland Cole, they were banker brothers of questionable reputation who brought the World's Fair Expo to Tennessee (Knoxville, Knox County in real life, Glenville, Glen County in the book). Jake Butcher ran for Governor, like his fictional counterpart Roland and the brothers were investigated just like in the book.

Some things in the book were such exact copies of the real life Butcher brothers that it was worrisome. Just one example: Jake Butcher built an impressive, tall, mirror walled bank with lovely fountains in downtown Knoxville that is a landmark of the Knoxville skyline--the tallest building in town. Here is a description from the book of Roland's bank:
"It was a damn awesome sight, the building, from any angle or vantage point you might choose for the viewing. Standing on Franklin Street, Roland's angle was straight up, like looking at a plane overhead. What he saw were twenty-nine stories of green mirrors on a shiny, rectangular tower, the mirrors catching and reflecting the sun's light and sending it in darting rays across the shadowed and dreary downtown below. Was there a better phrase than dwarfing the skyline? Obliterating the skyline? Inventing a skyline?"

Nothing on the Advanced Reading Copy credits the real life Butcher brothers with inspiring Mr. Majors by their life, so my husband (who was unable to finish the book, stating it just got "too boring") emailed him on our behalf to get the scoop. Mr. Majors replied, "I anticipate that reviewers in Tennessee will note the parallels in the novel to real life events" and "when I talk about the book to folks who aren't familiar with Tennessee, I mention the inspiration for the plot" and no, "the publisher will not be including a note about the book's inspiration." He goes on to say, that he "never pictured real people as I was writing the book, not for one second or one sentence" Wow. That's rather hard to believe, given things as detailed as the example above and the fact that he just admited that C. H. and Jake Butcher ARE the inspiration for the plot. . . This answer gave me a sense of unease, a distrust of the author that made me even less able to sink into his narrative.

Overall, with the writing style and my mistrust of the author, I was unable to enjoy this book or read it as closely as I generally do. Granted, I had a hard time getting over the obstacle of seeing the storyline so obviously the uncredited life of the Butcher brothers--and the fact that, knowing that, I already knew what happened. Would someone without my knowledge of Tennessee history enjoy this book? I don't know, but I did not see enough other redeeming qualities to think so.
Here is Mr. Major's email in full:
I anticipate that reviewers in Tennessee will note the parallels in the novel to real life events. When I talk about the book to folks who aren't familiar with Tennessee, I mention the inspiration for the plot, so that's warranted (and expected) if your wife mentions it in her review.

To answer your question, the publisher will not be including a note about the book's inspiration. The main reason being that I never pictured real people as I was writing the book, not for one second or one sentence. So though the plot may be inspired by real life events, the characters and scenes are all invented. A note, it seemed to me, would lead readers to believe that I had some kind of inside scoop on real events or actual people when I don't, and would distract them from the primary themes I'm trying to explore.

I was interested in writing a book about brothers (I have one that I'm very close to), ambition, and that large group of people my parents age who moved from southern farms and small towns to the city, and the effect that move had on them. There's a lot of my brother and me in the Cole brothers and a lot of my dad and uncles. So if the characters in the book are acting/thinking/feeling like any real life counterpart, the last name would have to be Majors. Looking at things in the rearview, the late seventies and early eighties seems like a really specific point in time in the south to me. This was still pre-cable, pre-sunbelt migration on a massive scale. I wanted to capture this moment in time just before the south tipped once and for all away from being a truly heterogenous region. That my father's generation would be in middle of that, this generation of farm boys and kids from small towns, as the south became urbanized and suburbanized and lost much of its rural heritage !! and identity, was really interesting to me. So basically, I just used the plot to explore themes I was interested in (the nature and cost of ambition/competitive but loving brothers/the changing south). I wasn't interested in writing about real people or telling biography or history, but in themes, and trying to find characters in which to express those themes.

I'm guessing I'll be answering questions about real life correlations from here on out. To his dying day, Robert Penn Warren swore that Willie Stark was not, in fact, Huey Long in All the Kings Men. Not sure how many people believe him, but I do.



Blogger Debi said...

Hmmm...think I'll pass this one up. Can definitely see where the mistrust is coming from!!!
On the other hand, I'd definitely like to read something about the Butcher brothers...sounds quite intriguing.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Medbie said...

I know I sound horrid about it! But, if he had just been honest and upfront and called it a retelling of their life, I would have read it in a different light.

They were interesting characters, all right. After all, they convinced the right people to have the World's Fair Expo in Knoxville, TN of all places! LOL

6:19 PM  
Blogger Debi said...

I don't think you sounded horrid at all! I totally see your point. And I really don't see his motivation in hiding the fact.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if Mr. Majors has read my book, Whirlwind: The Butcher Banking Scandal?

Sandra Lea

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms Lea. This is EXACTLY what I was thinking. I even saw a mention of "Ginnie" the wife espousing Scarlett O'Hara tendencies. That is straight out of your book!!
I believe Mr. Inman needs to do some serious soul searching.

11:12 AM  

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