The Millionaires

Inman Majors draws on personal inspirations for his nuanced and complex characters
By Bill Goodykoontz ('85), The Arizona Republic

Bill Goodykoontz

Bill Goodykoontz ('85) is the film critic for The Arizona Republic, in Phoenix, and chief film critic for Gannett.

When he set about writing The Millionaires, a novel about two brothers who rise to great heights only to suffer a precipitous fall, Inman Majors didn't have to look far for inspiration.

"I have a brother," Majors, who teaches creative writing at JMU, says in his thick Tennessee drawl. "All my friends who know us realize there's a lot of me and my brother in the book."

Happily, Majors mined only their close relationship for material. For the tale of epic financial gain and loss, he relied heavily on another set of brothers: Jake and C. H. Butcher, who spearheaded the effort to bring the World's Fair to Knoxville in 1982, only to be convicted of bank fraud not long afterwards.

In The Millionaires, they're depicted as Roland and J.T. Cole. Like the Butchers, the two work all manner of angles to bring the fair to a relatively small town — Glennville. They are helped by who might be the book's protagonist, though that role seems to shift, and its most-interesting character: Mike Teague, a seasoned, decent political fixer.

The facts hew closely to the Butchers' real-life rise and fall from grace — rural boys wind up in the city, grabbing all the money they can before wildly overreaching — but Majors, while acknowledging the similarities, warns not to read too much into them. "I hope people will read the book on its own regards, and not just try to connect the dots to real life," he says. "Because I wasn't trying to do real life."

Complex, interesting characters

What he was trying to do, Majors says, was get past the stereotypical Southern character. "I'm presenting characters that I hope are nuanced and complex," he says. "I don't do rednecks. I don't do aristocrats. I do these people who have been to college, they do drink a martini on occasion, they do dress nicely, not necessarily gauche. At the same time they can be rough around the edges at times. They can let their hair down at other times."

Again, he drew on experience.

"If I'm around some of my old high school friends I act one way. If I'm around my college colleagues, I act another way. My values don't change, but my speech pattern might change, or how loose I am might change a little bit."

Anyone who includes "y'all" as a vocabulary staple is familiar with these shifts. Those who don't aren't always willing to indulge a writer trying to portray them.

Past, present and economic meltdown

The novel is a sprawling affair. While the economic meltdown and mistrust of banks it inspired make it timely, Majors was going for something less contemporary. "I wanted to write a book about that generation, my parents generation, who grew up in the '30s and '40s and '50s in small towns and on farms," Majors says, "and then in the '60s and '70s began moving to cities like Knoxville and Atlanta and Birmingham and Charlotte. That migration from the small towns, from a rural South to a suburbanized, urban South. That generation always seemed to me to have one foot in the rural past and one foot in the urban cities."

For flavor, Majors was mostly influenced by his upbringing. His father was a longtime lobbyist in Tennessee; growing up, Majors was surrounded by political types. He soaked up the lifestyle. "One of the best compliments I got was … at a book signing in Nashville," Majors says. "I invited about 20 or 30 of my father's old friends, almost all of whom were legislators and lobbyists, and many who had read the book. And they go, 'Well, you got us right.'"

The Wall Street Journal review of Majors' book said, "Giving us profligate bankers who borrow badly, The Millionaires is a timely work." The New York Times Sunday Book Review reported, "Majors's depiction of a Tennessee evening is reminiscent of James Agee's hypnotic Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

The Millionaires is Majors' third novel. He also published Swimming in Sky (2000) and Wonderdog (2004).

About the Author: Bill Goodykoontz ('85) is the film critic for The Arizona Republic, in Phoenix, and chief film critic for Gannett. He lives in Chandler, Ariz., with his wife, Susan, four children and assorted rodent-type pets, as well as a parakeet. Read his blog at goodyblog.azcentral.com, and follow him on Twitter at goodyk.