By Don Williams
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.
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[excerpts from A Serpent's Journal, February 15-18, 2002]
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
Yesterday I finally finished (chapter) thirty-one and broke the three-hundred page mark. I feel good about this and even a little proud. I have taken a twelve-page short story and have so far squeezed three-hundred pages out of it.
I am at ninety-thousand words and am thinking Iíll go one-fifty or so before completing the revision draft. But now I face the daunting task of making it all come together, of making it all make sense. I have more fear today than I did the day before I began.
I canít speak this language. I canít even read the signs. Where do I go? What do I do? How do I even begin? Iíll do as I always do. Iíll start with a feeling that is tied to an image and see where the dream leads. God this is exciting. Do you still feel it even after you have written many stories and many books? Does it stay or go away? I love this feeling, Iím giddy with it. Today, is a good day to die.
February 18 , 2002
I re-read the last two chapters, focusing on thirty. (chapter) Thirty is where Jacob drinks lye for the first time and has a bizarre vision of sorts. There is now no question that he is a blessed child, more than ready to lead a revival of his own. His father can no longer deny that he has power, nor can he hinder his development into a great man. He cannot deny the promise that the boy holds.
His physical appearance, and his shy personality, belie his gift. He is like a young athlete, a Tiger Woods, or the son of an Olympian. In the shadow of his father he stagnates. It is time for him to move on, not to a greater teacher, but to a different kind of teacher Ė in a different kind of arena. This much I know. The rest is all fuzzy to me. So it is time now for Jacob to lead the show. Weíll see if I can get some pages in today.
Today is a good day to die. This quote is attributed to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse from the Battle of Little Bighorn, but is a war cry of the Lakota Sioux. When researching it I stumbled upon this wonderfully written account of that day. I am trying to locate the man who wrote this. It made me weep:
Some time in the early spring of 1876, Sitting Bull climbed to a hilltop, seeking a vision. In his dream, a great dust storm swirled down upon a small white cloud that resembled a Lakota village. Through the whirlwind, Sitting Bull could see soldiers marching. The little cloud was swallowed up for a time, but the storm eventually dissipated and the village emerged unharmed.
It was an encouraging dream. And in the spring of 1876, the Lakota needed encouragement, for General Philip Sheridan had already drawn up a plan that would send three columns of soldiers to find Sitting Bull and drive him and his followers onto the reservations.
One column, led by Brigadier General George Crook, was to move north from Fort Fetterman; another, under Colonel John Gibbon, was to march east from western Montana; and the third, commanded by General Alfred Terry, would march west from Fort Abraham Lincoln.
With Terry went the 566 enlisted men and 31 officers of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer. They moved out to the tune of "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
On June 6th, some 3,000 Lakota and Cheyenne were camped along Rosebud Creek in Montana. There they held their most sacred ritual -- a sun dance -- in which prayers were offered and vows made to Wakan Tanka, their Great Spirit.
Sitting Bull slashed his arms one hundred times as a sign of sacrifice. Then he had another vision: The soldiers came again to attack his people -- "as many as grasshoppers," he said -- but this time they were upside down, their horse's hooves in the air, their hats tumbling to the ground as they rode into the Lakota camp.
On the morning of June 17th, General Crook's column had stopped to brew coffee on the bank of the Rosebud, sure that no Indians would dare attack so large a force as theirs. Then, suddenly, Crazy Horse and more than 500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors rode down upon them. Crook's command included Crow and Shoshone scouts, eager to fight the tribes that had once taken their lands, and in the desperate fight that followed, the Indian scouts twice rescued the soldiers by riding through the Lakota and Cheyenne ranks. Unnerved by the enemy show of force, Crook withdrew the next morning.
The Lakota and Cheyenne moved north and formed a new camp, where for six days they celebrated their victory along a winding stream they called the Greasy Grass. Whites called it the Little Bighorn.
On June 21st, Custer met on the Yellowstone River with Colonel John Gibbon and their superior, Brigadier General Alfred Terry. They knew nothing of Crook's retreat.
Terry ordered Gibbon to march to the mouth of the Little Bighorn, while Custer and the Seventh Cavalry would try to locate the Indians and drive them down the valley toward Gibbon and annihilation.
As Custer rode off, Gibbon called out to him, "Now Custer, don't be greedy. . . . wait for us."
"No," he said, "I will not."
Fearful that Sitting Bull would elude him, Custer pushed his column hard -- 12 miles the first day, 33 the second, 28 the third. The exhausted troopers began to grumble about the man they privately called "Hard ***."
As they followed the Indians' trail, they did not grasp the full meaning of the fresh pony tracks that seemed to cross and recross it. In the last few days, 3,000 more Indians -- Lakotas, Arapahoes and Cheyennes -- had left the reservations to join Sitting Bull. His encampment now stretched out for three miles along the Greasy Grass, a gathering of more than six thousand Indians, eighteen hundred of them warriors.
On the evening of June 24th, Sitting Bull made his way to a ridge that overlooked the encampment, gave offerings to the Great Spirit and prayed for the protection of his people.
Custer knew nothing of the terrain and could not tell how many Indians awaited him. But it had been a surprise attack that had destroyed Black Kettle's Cheyenne on the Washita eight years earlier. With the weapon of surprise, a victory seemed just as likely here.
Custer hurried toward the Little Bighorn. He saw dust rising over a ridge just ahead of him and thought the Indians were already on the move to escape.
It was now or never.
Some 40 warriors appeared, then began racing back toward their camp. Custer sent Major Marcus Reno and three companies -- 140 men -- in pursuit, promising to support them. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was about to begin.
Reno's men crossed the river, formed a thin skirmish line, and began firing into one edge of the village, assuming that Custer would reinforce them. They were soon outnumbered and Reno ordered a retreat.
The soldiers were falling into the village, just as Sitting Bull's vision had predicted.
More warriors swarmed out of the village, but still Custer did not come. Instead of following Reno, he had led his five companies of 210 men toward a ridge, convinced the Indians were fleeing and that by charging down into the village from there, he could cut them off.
Custer was outnumbered more than four-to-one, but he led his troops down toward the village, firing as they came. Cheyenne warriors led by Lame White Man, Hunkpapa Lakotas under Gall, and Oglalas under Crazy Horse rode out to turn Custer back. Stunned at the sight of hundreds of warriors headed right at them, Custer and his men stopped short and began a headlong retreat toward the summit of a long, high ridge.
Some of the Indians remembered later that the legs of the men and the horses trembled as they scrambled up the slope.
I called to my men: ďThis is a good day to die: follow me.Ē...As we rushed upon them the [soldiers] dismounted to fire, but they did very poor shooting. They held their horse's reins on one arm while they were shooting, but their horses were so frightened that they pulled the men all around and a great many of their shots went up into the air and did us no harm.
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Events and ideas sometimes explode to bounce around like beads from a careless woman's necklace, so that sometimes you have to string several at once in order to regain footing. Herewith, beads on a string.
* The world lost a would-be shrine when the old Cormac McCarthy home burned down Jan. 27 in Knoxville. The famous author's brother Dennis and sister-in-law Judy were at my writing workshop at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church that evening. They were stoic. The house was rundown, perhaps beyond saving, long out of the family's possession. Later, Dennis read aloud the following sentence from The Road, Cormac's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
" He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago."
I tried gleaning support for saving the house over the years. After all Cormac's likely been short-listed for the Nobel Prize more than once for novels such as No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Road, Blood Meridian, Suttree, Child of God and so on. I envisioned a shrine like the Thomas Wolfe home in Asheville, the wondrous Carl Sandburg place in Flat Rock.
Here's what I wrote about the McCarthy house in a June 1990 article in The Knoxville News-Sentinel. "Later they moved about 10 miles away to Martin Mill Pike, a sinuous drive into the leafy countryside of South Knox County. When I saw it, the white, gabled structure was choked with weeds and debris, but once it was structurally sound and dignified.
" 'Cormac ran all these forests and hills,' Annie Delisle (his former wife) said in her singing English accent as she drove past the house.. 'He used to put his traps out here..' "
An opportunity for a McCarthy shrine has passed, yet others remain. To read more visit NewMillenniumWritings.com.
* John Updike was the first author interviewed for New Millennium Writings, the journal I began in 1996, and his death, also on Jan. 27, left me feeling a sad disquiet. Twice I met him, a tall, gracious presence. He was generous with his wisdom and preciously guarded time. At the Tennessee Theater for a Friends of the Library reading, the always industrious writer made corrections to his poetry as he read. Three things he said to me in those years stayed with me.
First, "When you come to the practice of your art you have to go with what thrills you. If you wrote some opposite way, you would get criticized for that. You have to please yourself."
In response to my question, "Do you believe in God?" he said this:
"Not to believe in God seems a terrible confession of meaninglessness." And yet, he also said.
"What does the Hubble Telescope tell us? It's a ridiculously large universe from which no clear message emerges.."
* Such notions first confronted me as a teenager reading science-fiction and watching Star Trek. Wednesday I read an article about a new study that concludes the cosmos is teeming with Earth-type planets, many surely awash with water and life. The article at cnn.com posited the existence of up to 100 billion such planets in our Milky Way alone. A decade ago, the story would've thrilled me. Somehow, it doesn't now. The age of miracles and wonders has taken the edge off my capacity to marvel, I suspect. If so, there's a loss worth lamenting.
* Destruction of this good earth is worth lamenting even more. Mountaintops blasted away with all attendant life thereon, and waters that will never be as clean again in states throughout the Appalachians and beyond are worth decrying. Fortunately, two bills coming before the Tennessee state legislature, possibly as early as next week, would eliminate much mountaintop removal. For more information about how you can help stop such practices, visit www.tnleaf.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* On a national scale, "The Clean Water Protection Act would sharply reduce mountaintop removal. protect clean drinking water. and protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents." writes Matt Wasson of iLoveMountains.org.
"The good news is that Representatives Frank Pallone and Dave Reichert are preparing to introduce the Clean Water Protection Act in Congress. Already, 91 of their fellow members of Congress have agreed to co-sponsor the CWPA when it is introduced. Is your representative one of those co-sponsors? Click here to find out:
"If your representative isn't on the list, please take a moment to email and ask them to support the CWPA and to take a stand," by clicking the same link:
"You may also help move the CWPA through Congress by joining the 4th Annual End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington, taking place March 14-19th," writes Wasson.
As I wrote to my state Rep. Richard Montgomery, "a bulldozer, dynamite crew and dump truck is not a jobs program, it's pillage by industry insiders at the expense of everyone else."
Please help put America on a clean energy track and fight the destruction of our world.
Thanks and God Bless.
Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Michigan Journalism Fellowship, a Golden Presscard Award and the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize. He is finishing a novel, "Orchid of the Orchid Lounge," set in his native Tennessee and Iraq. His book of selected journalism, "Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes, the Best Writings About People" by Don Williams, is due a second printing.
For more information, email him at email@example.com. Or visit the NMW website at www.NewMillenniumWritings.com.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
I am milking chapter 31 for reasons Iím afraid may depress me, and you. What am I so damn afraid of? I suppose I fear really delving into Jacob. I suppose I fear the end. I suppose I fear my own commitment to this book. Whatever it is, Iíve got to get out of this damn cave. Iím stuck in a cave both literally and figuratively. Yesterday they found themselves a helluva snake Ė which is what Charles Flint asked for. They found a huge snake but did not manage to catch it. It has escaped into the cave and now they have to go after it because it is THE snake I need. It is the snake that will live in Jacobís unused coffin, and the snake that, well, now Iím thinking too far ahead.
I need this snake and it wonít come easy to them because it is old and over seven feet long and they have come into its world. If they manage to catch it must be on its terms. I cannot allow one man and one girl to traipse into a den of serpents and just walk away with a huge snake. I simply cannot allow that to happen. This snake must fight. This snake must assert its right to live where it belongs. I am being told by Lane Zachary (my agent at the time) that every chapter is big, every moment is big. I am being told there is too much drama and perhaps there is, but this snake and this cave have their own ideas Andrew. It needs to be as difficult for me to write my way out of it as it is for my characters to get out of it. This is no ordinary cave I have found in the North Georgia Hills, this is a sacred place and will not give up her secrets easily Ė even to an Indian who knows and respects it. This should be how it always is. We should struggle like mad for what we want. We must fight for what is good.
Now Iíve lost my train of thought. This is the danger of working in a small cafť. When it gets noisy my ears perk up and Iím in listening mode and then my brain switches away from the work. You must be frustrated by me. Iím a rambling fool.
Must finish (chapter) 31 today. All there is left to do is wrap up the snake hunt and go back for some appropriate bible verses. So today that will be done and there will be no more excuse, I will go back to Jacob and Charles and John, and kill one, elevate another and relegate the third to apostle status. You guess which is which.
Just one more thing. People are always talking about Hemingwayís prose as being terse and lean, and this is true to a point. There are many fine examples of this in his work. But there are also many examples of the exact opposite. I came across a passage today in Green Hills of Africa that would put Cormac McCarthy to shame. Iím talking about a sentence a page and half long Ė beautiful prose, wonderful writing, but not at all what one would expect from Hemingway. And this is not an anomaly. Nor are his use of adverbs; which the myth claims he abhors. He uses both long sentences and adverbs often, but masterfully, so as not to draw attention to themselves and much can be learned from this.
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A Serpentís Journal
Excerpts, February 8-11, 2002
South Park Cafť, San Francisco
I have taken a big detour with this chapter in the cave and I canít help thinking that it will get cut. I think about this a lot now Ė about what will be cut out Ė and it depresses me because I put so much into every little sentence. But this is really the part I love most about this, the construction elements of building and shuffling and rewording and reading aloud and tweaking and polishing and then letting it sit for awhile like a bowl full of yeast feeding on sugar-water and then coming back to it yet again until it is just right. This is the real writing I think, the work after the original thought. Crafting the thought. If I have any talent, this is where it lies, in this part of the process. Give me the raw materials for a story and I can build a good one. Please tell me that one day I can work with you on a story, just one is all I ask, a gem of a short story, a miracle of a piece. Lord how I yearn to work on a short again. I hope that what I am going through now will help me and make me a better short story writer. This novel business is not for a manic, impatient writer like me.
It is a fine morning. Skies are blue with only the long wispy clouds that mean good weather to come. It is bright, so bright that one is forced to wince and hold a hand to the brow in order to see. I did not finish chapter 31 yesterday. Perhaps I got too cocky. Iím having some problems with Magdalena because I still donít know her yet and Iím having problems within the confines of the cave. Logistically, I have three people down there and I have to get two of them into a small chamber where there are snakes who are down here near a hot-spring keeping warm. I had thought that this might be the easiest kind of writing because outside [the outdoors] is my element. Once Iím in the natural world, I am at home, but Georgia is not my home and I wish to God I could have spent a few days in the woods there before tackling this book. I want to know the trees and the topography. I want to feel the quality of the air. Maybe my next novel can take place in California, or upstate New York which are the two worlds I feel I know better than any, including my own inner landscape.
It occurred to me that I am wring this for many reasons, some of them hidden to me. I of course want to tune up before working, and I want to summarize my thoughts, thus distilling them. Also, I think I am trying to convince myself that I am sane. And there are other things going on here too. Will I ever read this once I am done? Will anyone else? Who knows. But I know one thing, Steinbeck helped me with his letters to Covici, and perhaps one day I can help someone too. This has become part of the process now. I hesitate to stop for fear of jinxing the work.
Okay, now Iíll work. I am in a different cafť, one much quieter Ė though quite a distance from home. And they make the best coffee here. It is dangerous, for I will drink too much coffee.
If this thing ever gets done itíll be a miracle straight from God himself. This book has no business being completed, with my life the way it is, all odds are against it and I suppose this is why I persevere. I am stubborn like you would not believe. I simply will not give up. But I will give up this ridiculous tirade. I must finish 31 today. I must. I have milked it far too long. I have milked this book far too long, I must make better progress and work harder. The problem is I am not reading anymore. I need to be reading and Iím spending all my time reading Steinbeck's journal and the bible and Hemingwayís politically incorrect hunting journal. None of this inspires. The bible a bit. The Steinbeck a bit but I need more. Man this is turning into a rant but I must need to rant. God how I wish I had a real friend Andrew. Okay Iím done. I hope you donít even read this one, I have nothing to say today, not here, perhaps it will all come out through my fingers.
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