In The Millionaires, his remarkable—and very timely—third novel, Inman Majors explores a banker’s impulse to make lots of money, no matter the risks. Following Swimming in Sky and Wonderdog—each of which could accurately be called a coming-of-age novel, though in very different ways—Majors has now written an incontrovertibly grown-up book. At 480 pages, The Millionaires is almost as long as the first two novels combined, and the story of two small-town brothers who rise to dangerous big-city heights is as big and ambitious as the physical book itself.
As the novel opens, Roland Cole, a former Tennessee farm boy, is running for governor of his home state. Roland has no political experience, but he and his brother J.T. have turned their father’s tiny small-town bank into a state-wide banking empire, and they can afford to hire Mike Teague, a former lobbyist and veteran political consultant, to help them channel into politics their growing ambition.
Rolling out over the next five years according to the structure of a de casibus tragedy, The Millionaires tells the tale of the rise and fall of great men. Along the way, and without distracting from his page-turning plot, Majors also manages to explore the collision of the old and new South, as well as the eternal conflict between duty and drive, love and desire, self-respect and desperation, and countless smaller warring impulses in human nature. BookPage caught up with Inman Majors to discuss his big book.
Your last book, Wonderdog, is a comic novel about a moorless young man that takes place against a Southern political backdrop. Is it fair to say that The Millionaires is a more serious exploration of some of the same themes?
Absolutely. My father was a longtime lobbyist in Nashville, so I’ve spent a lot of time in and around the political arena. When I was young, Dad would take me out of school for a few days each year so I could hang out with him down at the legislature and see how the political process worked. I didn’t realize I was taking notes for future books at the time, but I guess I was.
The protagonists in this novel are ambitious, and they’re driven as much by the urge to win, to be triumphant, as by any winning prize: “Some folks are lucky to be satisfied with what they have,” Roland Cole tells Teague. “Men like us, though, we want to be in the game.” Are men like Teague and the Coles more interesting to write about than folks who are satisfied with what they have?
Ambitious people take more risks. They win bigger and lose harder, and the tension between success and failure makes for interesting characters. In my real life, I’d rather hang out with the solid, steady type. But when I’m at the computer, I’ll take the edgy, daring folks every time.
Mike Teague leaves his job as a high-school history teacher, he says, because “the bureaucracy and behind-the-scenes politics proved beyond trifling, beyond exasperating.” Are you suggesting that it’s impossible for human beings to escape politics, even when they’re far removed from government?
I was actually suggesting that school department meetings are Dante’s final ring of hell. No, seriously, you got what I was after. Teague realizes that you can’t escape politics in any walk of life—youth sports, church choirs, etc. There are always going to be people maneuvering to do things the way they want. So Teague decides that life is politics; he might as well play at a high level and be paid accordingly.
You write from the point of view of dozens of characters in this book—not just the protagonists, but virtually everyone who makes an appearance: gravediggers, farmers, grandmothers, waiters, wives, mistresses, etc. Did you find it hard to speak in so many different voices as you were writing?
I think it was Faulkner who said that all writers are frustrated actors. So I loved waking up each morning and putting on a different character’s outfit each day. I will say that my wife preferred my gravedigger attire to the scanty number I donned for the waitress.
“Bankers weren’t supposed to be wildcatters,” J.T. Cole observes after a vast savings-and-loan operation is closed in a sting. As you were writing this book, did you have any inkling that the S&L scandals of the 1980s would be replayed in another banking crisis just as The Millionaires hit bookstores?
I, and my 401K, had absolutely no idea the book would be timed with the current financial crisis. The good news is The Millionaires is really topical right now. The bad news is everyone’s too broke to buy a book.
Margaret Renkl is the former books editor for the Nashville Scene.