By way of explaining a first-person scene he'd written in which a mother drowns her baby girl in a bathtub, the late great John Updike told me once in an interview, "In a novel of any length you should be able to enter some other character's mind. The genius of the novel is to demonstrate different points of view."
It's not a notion favored by those who demonize enemies in order to make short work of them. Anyone who's tried to publicly analyze motives and psychology of terrorists knows how quickly such missionary work draws down the wrath of inflamed citizens.
That attitude extends not only to those who would understand terrorists, political foes and culture warriors, but especially those who express any empathy for the crooks, liars and greed mongers who perpetrated our current economic fiasco.
But those who would try and take the measure of their humanity as we march our Bernie Madoffs to guillotine or country club prison could do worse than read Inman Majors' novel, The Millionaires (W. W. Norton, 2009, $24.95.).
It's a book I loved reading two or three weeks ago, and one that I've thought about almost daily since.
The novel's more than loosely based on what's known as the Butcher banking empire of East Tennessee. It's a sort of true-life tale of would-be kings who lose their Midas touch or---to mix my myths a bit---fly too close to the sun, like Icarus. Flying ever higher, they find themselves out of their element, borrowing outrageously and moving funds around in a desperate, possibly well-intended effort to leave a mark on the landscape.
And leave one they do. Like Jake and C.H. Butcher, who were seminal in bringing the 1982 World's Fair to Knoxville, as well as a pair of gleaming towers still pointing to the heavens above that ever-fairer city, Roland and J. T. Cole bring a world-class exhibition to the fictive town of Glennville where they build their own towers.
If asked to describe the towers in one word, you might be tempted to say phallic. A truer word might be crystalline, for the real life towers not only mirror the skies and mountains of Tennessee, they're like crystals in which an astute observer might've caught glimmerings of the future---a future of greed and corruption we're experiencing still.
A quarter-century after the real life Butcher banking scandals, their crimes have been rendered almost quaint by a litany of scandal and mismanagement on an international scale, including the Savings & Loan fiasco, Enron, Madoff, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, AIG, bank after bank, and a fistful of Bush Administration political scandals.
One could look at the Butchers as canaries in the mines of an nation that thought it was building towers to the heavens when, in fact, it was digging itself ever deeper into a pit of moral and financial despair that brought multitudes of investors, pensioners and others down with them.
And yet. Inman Majors has managed to render his similarly bereft brothers sympathetic, even lovable. He shows us their hard-scrabble past, the banal beginnings of their banking deals, their brotherly chemistry and competitiveness that got out of hand. Some critics have misunderstood what Majors is up to here, and write his book off as humor or satire. But what Majors is really up to in this 475 page book---which does contain formidable humor in the Tom Wolfe tradition---is tragedy.
In that way he resembles the great social realism novelists of the twentieth century. His protagonist brothers could be seen as hill country versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark in All the King's Men or Rabbit Angstrom in Updike's Rabbit is Rich. Yet the Coles are richly defined by their own quirks, visions, vices and manners, and so rise above stock comparisons. We meet their lovable children, wives, lovers, advisers, bartenders, friends, foes, employees and townspeople who knew them when.
There's something humbling yet bracing about watching such rich and powerful men get their comeuppance, because most of us at one time or another have envied such people. I'm reminded of pithy words from commentator William Safire, who once wrote, "Nixon looked down on the Kennedys with utmost envy."
So true. And yet, J.T. and Roland Cole are rendered more real than even the Kennedys because they're like us--especially those of us who hail from south of the Mason Dixon line and west of the Appalachian Trail.
Underneath their wool-blend suits they're scruffy and country, rooted in a community that's in turn rooted in the earth. They're the pride of an outlying community still based in large part on cattle and corn and hay and tobacco.
Yet somehow they've managed to fly to the sun, as symbolized by an architectural bauble that defines Glennville much as the Sunsphere has come to symbolize Knoxville.
There's a scene in The Millionaires that, purposely or not, invokes Gatsby reaching with arms stretched to embrace the light at the end of Daisy's pier. It comes toward the end of the book, at night, at a lavish party on a lighted lawn brimming with food, drink, laughter, an orchestra and beautiful people.
Standing on the fringe of the party talking to Mike Teague, the true protagonist of this book, Roland stretches out his arms as if to embrace the whole estate, the very stars in the sky and asks, "I mean, am I really standing here? Tell me. Am I?" And you feel the wonder of just how far he's come and just how bitter his fall will be.
Like the best of books, The Millionaires grants its subjects their humanity, and leaves you pondering the imponderable, not only about the Coles, but about real life counterparts. What if they'd been able to stave off inspectors for six more months until some of their investments came to fruition? What if Roland had won the governorship? What if the fictive counterpart to the real-life President Carter, a close friend of close friends, had won re-election in 1980? What if they'd gained acceptance from old money in Glennville?
Many novels resonate in mind thanks to a a line or two, like those quoted above. In All the King's Men, the lines that live on for me are, "It could've been all different, Jack. You got to believe that."
Like Fitzgerald, Warren, Wolfe and Updike before him, Majors makes you believe it.