'Millionaires' takes a peek inside Reagan-era New South

April 26, 2009 

  • Inman Majors

    W.W. Norton, 480 pages

'The Millionaires," Inman Majors' third novel (after "Wonderdog" and "Swimming in Sky"), is hitting bookstores at the right moment. An inside look at high-rolling banker-politicians who take great risks and fall, it feels very 2009.

And yet the novel is not set on Wall Street but in a fictional version of Knoxville, Tenn., of the late 1970s and early '80s, when that city hosted the World's Fair. Back then, two country boy bankers (and, ultimately, convicted felons), C.H. and Jake Butcher, attracted that international event to their sleepy Southern city. In "The Millionaires," Knoxville becomes Glennville and the Butchers are transformed into the Cole brothers, J.T. and Roland, to produce an engrossing story about ambition and integrity.

Majors, a creative writing professor and son of a longtime Tennessee lobbyist, opens the story with politics: In 1978, Roland Cole is making what will be an unsuccessful run for governor. He hires a savvy consultant named Mike Teague. Teague proves his mettle in defeat, and the Cole brothers hire him to spearhead the effort to bring a World's Fair to Glennville.

Though Majors uses multiple points of view, Teague's occupies the storytelling gravitational center. The reader sees the progress of the Cole brothers' World's Fair ambitions mostly through his eyes, allowing a kind of insider's view into big time finance and politics as the fair becomes a reality.

But Teague is not privy to the inner workings of the Coles' banking empire, which eventually unravels in a spate of influence peddling and fraudulent loans reminiscent of today's financial crisis -- and just as murky in its details.

Majors is not as interested in the ins and outs of the banking boondoggle as he is in the characters who participate in it. The real "interest" in this book centers on the title characters, the millionaire Coles, and on Teague, who notably becomes the moral center of the action.

Is it possible, the author seems to ask, for the reader to identify with a couple of good 'ol boy crooks and a guy whose lobbyist brethren are today among the biggest scapegoats for the problems in Washington?

For the first three quarters of the novel, Majors' answer seems to be no. The Coles come off as villains, and Teague as a pragmatist, looking to do his bend-and-break-the-truth job in as professional a fashion as possible. If you like greedy, womanizing wheeler-dealers and sophists, you'll eat this stuff up. Otherwise, not.

Once the house of cards falls in on the Coles, there is a remarkable shift in sympathies.

What had been a book about a political and financial deal gone bad turns into an nuanced portrait of three psyches, and the trigger for the shift belongs to Majors' depiction of Teague.

In a pivotal moment, Teague informs his wife that he will not rat out the brothers -- not because he likes them, but because his profession requires him to be loyal to his employers.

In Teague's own words: "When you hire me on, you're not just buying my expertise. A lot of folks have expertise. What you're buying with me is my silence... If you can't trust my silence, no matter the circumstances, then I've sold you a false bill of goods. I'm charging for silence."

This silence could be costly: Teague could go to jail for it.

This courageous act, morally dubious as it is, seems to convince Majors that the Coles are worth humanizing, almost as if he is being lobbied by Teague himself.

And so the reader is treated to a radically different set of Coles, good old East Tennessee country boys who worked their way painstakingly into financial success and sophistication but always felt out of place in the boardroom: "Roland ... wondered: How often do I come across one of us? A man about my age, a successful man, who can dip down to 'fixing to' one minute and talk macroconomics the next?"

J.T.'s change, without giving too much away, can fairly be described as transformative.

Majors deserves ample applause for his storytelling and character-drawing skills; less for his mannered writing style. "The Millionaires" spends a fair amount of time in Teague's head but shifts jarringly to other characters' points of view; at times it reads like a screenplay, a stage play, even poetry. One section heading, "A Phone Conversation: Lake House Bedroom: Limited Perspective," shows the writing teacher's concern with technique as much as story.

The book's high level of testosterone will not please everybody. Female characters are limited to wives and mistresses who mostly stay out of the loop.

"The Millionaires," set in the first years of the Reagan administration, has the feel of the westerns in which Ronald Reagan the actor played, when men were men and lived by the seat of their pants, by their principles or both.

And yet "The Millionaires" is a novel of the New South, that near-mythical place where a good old boy -- to his astonishment -- can grow money more readily than tobacco leaves.

David Frauenfelder's blog, Breakfast with Pandora, can be found at www.myth.typepad.com.

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