Monday, September 29, 2014

Land of a Thousand Necklaces . . .

Top: Bongo, Sears
Skirt: Macy's
Shoes: Payless
Bag: Princess Vera, Kohl's
Jacket: Tommy Hilfiger, Marshalls
Sunglasses: Candie's, Kohl's
Scarf: Wet Seal

Tee: American Rag, Macy's
Skirt: Kohl's
Shoes: Payless
Bag: Target
Belt: J. C. Penney's
Sunglasses: Candie's, Kohl's

Tank: J. C. Penney's
Bra: Macy's
Cardigan: Kohl's
Skirt: Marshalls
Shoes: BCBG, Macy's
Bag: Etsy, Glamour Damaged
Sunglasses: Candie's, Kohl's

. . . is where I'll be living if I keep up this pace.  It turns out that simpler necklaces are quicker and easier to make, causing my stock to burgeon at a rate that's more than a little alarming.  Still, I can't seem to stem my appetite for making accessories.  I'm greedy that way, living by the too-much-is-never-enough crafter's creed.  

Greed was certainly at work in The Millionaires, a book by Inman Majors that I just finished reading.  I'd received it as a gift, and I didn't think that I'd like it, as it was an unwieldy tale of political intrigue and new money in the South in the late 1970s.  And at first I was right.  The opening scene is all about swagger, introducing the two sometime stars of the novel, brothers J. T. and Roland Cole, through the lens of a high stakes poker game.  It's long and drawn-out and that irritating mix of erudite and macho, and when I read it a year or so ago, I thought, I don't think I can do this.  I rarely give up on a book and pride myself on my eclectic taste (which is, I'm sure, how I ended up with this book in the first place), so my white flag behavior was something of an anomaly.  Then last week I found myself fresh out of reading material and, in the spirit of thriftiness and ego, decided to give J. T. and Roland one more chance.

I'm not saying that it was easy.  The brothers Cole still weren't leaping off the page.  Opportunistic country boys-come-businessmen, their obliviousness to everything except their pursuit of power and wealth was less than engaging.  But once I was about a hundred pages in (the tome totals 478), I'd become well acquainted with what I call the "perks."  The perks are the good parts of otherwise boring books, the silver linings, the prizes in the Cracker Jacks boxes.  (You'd have to know that I hate Cracker Jacks for that to make sense).  And this being a literary novel, the perks were pretty good.  For one thing, Majors is an excellent writer (and ought to be, as a fiction professor at James Madison University), particularly talented at description and introspection and at using both to transform characters into people.  Not so much the Coles, mind you, as they remain pretty static throughout the saga, but their wives and mistresses and most notably their adviser, Teague.  Majors has them reliving these subtle, shameful incidents that make you smart with embarrassment over your own such memories.  In a novel in which appearances mean everything, such exposure is especially effective and all the more human.

Another gem?  Roland's encounter with an Appalachian craftsman at his fait accompli of a world's fair extravaganza.  

"And what these people could craft, and craft from, producing household necessities and art and music from so little.  Such historically poor, poor people, and still the urge to create, art from apples and rags, instruments from gourds and horsehair.  He thought now, on this last night of the fair, that he understood the creative urge.  How it was a thing that one simply must do, regardless of situation or reception." (375)      

Of course, I understand this urge to make something from nothing even if no one else ever sees it or needs it.  It's why I can't stop making stuff. (To be clear, I realize that there's a world of difference between a suburban woman stringing rhinestones for fun and a mountain man making lye before he kills dinner, although I don't doubt that my compulsion is any less primitive.)  In an attempt at solidarity, Roland, who lives in a mansion, tells the man about his boyhood red oak table and how it's still standing in his mother's house.  The man tells him that it'll last a hundred years more.  Then Roland goes on to talk to another craftsperson, a grateful doll-making woman who is now selling her work all over the world thanks to Roland's fair.  The scene ends with the first craftsman telling Roland to take care of his table.  

I know, I know.  This all sounds totally random.  But you have to know that the Coles are hicks from the sticks desperately trying to appear polished, an ambition that is foiled time and time again as Majors confronts them with their country roots.  Red oak tables are built to last and mansions aren't, as evidenced when Roland is convicted of defrauding scores of townspeople in the following chapters. Still, Majors makes us see that Roland and J. T. aren't all bad.  He even sort of paints them as Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich and giving (entrepreneurial opportunities, monstrous tips) to the poor.  I'm not saying that what they did was justified -- I'm not sure that their characters have enough depth for such premeditation -- but it's certainly an underlying theme in the book, this not being able to deny where you come from, not just with the Coles, but with their wives, and with Teague.  It's this quiet truth that anchors the novel's surrounding chaos, the homespun heart that outshines all the glitter.

So those were the perks.  Otherwise, I didn't like this book at all.  I didn't like the lyricism of the language, or the way it made me hunt for themes and symbols as if I were back in college.  Just as sometimes, when all the cheese wheels and ice pops are gone, I can be caught begrudgingly and not unhappily filching Cracker Jacks.            

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