FLORENCE GILKESON: Morality Tale Reminiscent Of 1982 Fair
By Inman Majors
W. W. Norton, 2009, $24.95
When country boys get too big for their britches, you can be sure the jealous peers will be rooting for their downfall.
Inman Majors has crafted a clever morality tale in the form of a political thriller recounting the rise and fall of the Cole brothers, J.T. and Roland. The Tennessee brothers made a small fortune in banking and now they long for more. It opens in 1978 and ends in the 1980s.
First off, Roland makes a run for governor. To ease the way, the Coles hire Mike Teague, an experienced but respected political strategist, to guide the campaign. But Roland can't decide whether to campaign as one of the good old redneck boys or as the more sophisticated man about town that he has become. He loses, but by now he has built up a following that he and J.T. use to promote their next big initiative, attracting a world's fair to their small university city of Glennville.
The Coles ask Teague to remain as administrator of the fair. The campaign for the fair proves to be more difficult than expected. Despite their protestations that the fair will boost the local economy and become a permanent addition to their culture and economy, the local opposition is surprisingly strong. The brothers turn to political friends and foes to raise funds to attract the international exposition.
The fair does come to Glennville and is a smashing success, but the curtain falls on the Cole brothers almost before the closing ceremonies.
The author has loosely based the Glennville fair on the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville. Both had financial issues, including bank failures. The Knoxville fair was centered with a Sunsphere and had energy as its theme. Glennville had its Sun Tower and Helios logo. Knoxville is a university city.
By contrast, the plot centers about the brothers and the intrigue enveloping their desire for power and influence. J.T. and Roland relish their lavish estates, their boats and aircraft, their sophisticated parties, their beautiful wives and families and their stylish mistresses.
Inman Majors, who teaches fiction writing at James Madison University in Virginia, subtly captures the aura of the power play by these brothers, whose background is not so much humble as it is modest and principled. His thoughtful but provocative prose builds atmosphere reflecting the simple sights, sounds and scents of the city and the countryside, from the noise of crickets to the rustle of leaves on a swimming pool cover.
The plot builds, anecdote by anecdote, as Majors works the reader inside the characters. In one passage, the Coles' 6-year-old sister searches for earthworms in the grave being excavated for the burial of her father. She wants the worms to feed her chickens.
During a gala at the elaborate Cole estate, Roland admits that he borrowed the money. His 1983 declaration is a chilling reflection of today's banking crisis. Roland says: "If you can't pay off a little, the little you need just to scrape by, if you're going to get crunched up by the interest over time and not make it, just grind along on a slow Chinese water torture kind of death, why not just roll the dice and hope you hit it big? If you go bust, you go bust."
Teague remembers a childhood incident in which he was embarrassed because his grandparents served a meatless meal attended by a city friend. It did not matter that the food was delicious, their plates laden with fresh garden vegetables and his grandmother's rich cornbread. Instead, he felt shame. Now, as an adult, he is ashamed of that childhood shame.
It is this vignette that perhaps best of all illustrates what went wrong with the Cole brothers, whose greed and lust for fame and power stripped them of their souls.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at email@example.com.
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