"To look to the river or the mountains or the university bell tower a mile away was to see just another spring day in Glennville, a lovely one, but like a million others before it. And then to look down at the fair site, with the buildings and the people and the colorful flags of 46 nations, well it was disorienting, and the people sitting by the huge windows found themselves checking again for the river, the mountains, the bell tower, to make sure the scene below them was actually happening and not some wondrous mirage."
That scene of opening day at an allegedly fictional world's fair is part of a new novel called The Millionaires. Its author seems to be in an enviable spot. Inman Majors recently earned tenure as an associate professor of writing at Virginia's James Madison University. The Millionaires, his third novel, has gotten qualified but mostly laudatory reviews in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other journals that don't even bother to review most of the novels published in America in a given year. ("A knowing social novel, ruthlessly alive," novelist Mark Costello called it. "Inman Majors may know everything.")
For reasons that come to seem obvious, it's especially popular in Knoxville. The waiting list to read the public library's copy of The Millionaires was, last we checked, several weeks long.
For a novelist or a guy who knows everything, Majors sounds, on the phone, like a regular sort: no abstract bohemian pose, no dark and provocative answers. He lives happily with his wife and kids in a suburban setting in Waynesboro, Va. Call him on a Tuesday afternoon, and you may hear kids playing in the background, and birds. "I just love the suburbs," he says, describing both his current neighborhood and the setting of his childhood in West Knoxville.
Talking about his book, he sounds younger than 44, with the out-of-breath enthusiasm of an athlete recounting a championship game in the locker room. The bit of rasp in his voice may remind even you a little of his uncle, whose name is Johnny Majors. Inman Majors is a member of the most famous football family in UT Vol history.
He speaks in bursts, as if his thoughts are way ahead of himself. Sometimes he'll start in one direction, then opt for a reverse, and make the same point from a different angle. The football analogies may stretch pretty thin—unlike his father and three uncles who were all standout college football players, Inman Majors hasn't played formally since high school—and he has a graduate degree in poetry, of all things. (From Alabama, of all places.) He's the Majors who's a novelist. Then again, Majors is proud he was a starting cornerback on the dark-horse team that won the state championship for Webb School in 1981.
In The Millionaires, the setting is a city on the Tennessee River called "Glennville." Even though there's no Sunsphere—in Glennville, it's the "Sun Tower"—reviewers gather that Glennville's a close approximation of Knoxville. The protagonists are a couple of nouveau-riche brothers named Roland and J.T. Cole. Majors says people who knew Jake and C.H. Butcher compliment him for nailing the tenor and gist of backroom conversations accurately, and ask where he got his information. He claims he hardly researched the fair at all, and read only one account of the era, World Class Politics, by UT professor and Fair critic Joe Dodd.
"I was 17 at the time," Majors says. "As I was writing, I never pictured real people. The backstories are from my life, my dad's life." As early as when Inman was 8 or so, Joe Majors would take his son out of school to visit the Legislature in Nashville, and out to lobbying dinners later. "I knew women like the ones in the book, and men." He says he mainly wanted to write a book about brothers—the Majors family is full of brothers (Inman's own brother, Frank, is a hedge-fund manager in Bermuda), and those fraternal relations colored his characters as much as any news story did. He also wanted to write a sort of homage to his parents' generation, the Southerners who moved from the farms to the cities about half a century ago. In his book, he says, the character development and settings are more important than the plot.
"I had no interest in writing a biography or history," he says—but adds, "I did have an interest in doing something like All the King's Men," admitting to the resemblance some reviewers have noted to the well-known novel by Robert Penn Warren inspired—roughly—by the career of Huey P. Long. "If there were no Huey Long, there'd be no All the King's Men," Majors says. "But Willie Stark is not Huey Long." The relationship between the Cole brothers and the Butchers is comparable. Of the setting, he says, "Glennville may look a lot like Knoxville, but it's not Knoxville."
He's amused at common speculation about the central character, a level-headed adviser named Mike Teague. Teague may be, more or less, the author. "There's a lot of me in that character," Majors says.
Knoxville: "Paved hell"
"Glennville" is an overgrown backwater town with no real skyline, or much sense of itself as a city, before the reckless Cole brothers arrive. But it sounds like a more complex and generally nicer place than the setting—called "Knoxville," with recognizable geography, and real street names—in Majors' first novel, Swimming in Sky. Published in 2000, it's a story about a post-collegiate slacker, a Vanderbilt grad who lives with his mother in suburban West Knoxville, and bears some resemblance to the author. One passage assesses Knoxville as a "paved hell."
"A lot of folks have complicated relationships with their home towns," Majors admits. "Joyce complained about Dublin his whole life, and never went back—but couldn't write about anything else."
Majors was a kid when his family moved to Knoxville, but he arrived in a city where his name had been well known for decades. His grandfather Shirley Inman Majors, longtime coach for the Sewanee Tigers, sired a dynasty of great football players: three, Johnny, Bill, and Bobby Majors were all Vol football heroes. Bill Majors was an assistant coach for the Vols when he and two other coaches were killed in West Knoxville in 1965 when their car was hit by a train. That tragedy still looms in the past of Majors' first novel as a sort of personal legend.
Inman's dad, Joe, was the Majors who wasn't a Vol—but he was a football star at Alabama and Florida State, and even went pro, briefly, with the 1960 Houston Oilers. Later on he got a law degree and became a state representative from Tullahoma. When he came to Knoxville in the early 1970s to work for the Shagbark resort development in Sevier County, Joe Majors was not as well known in Knoxville as his three brothers. Later a lobbyist, he spent much of his time in Nashville.
They lived in West Knoxville, at the height of the suburban boom, when every house in Cedar Bluff was noisy with kids. His memories of a West Knoxville youth sound blissful, especially when they lived in the Trails West subdivision in the 1970s. "West Knoxville at the time was a really fun place to be. It seemed like during the summer we could stay out forever. It was safe, and there was not really any place to get in trouble. So you would just roam around subdivisions like Crestwood, Ashley Oaks, Cedar Bluff, Belmont West, etc., and just run into tons of kids."
When Uncle John moved to Knoxville to coach the Vols, it was, for a while at least, fun to be a Majors. He'd give his friends tours of the locker rooms. "I hope I wasn't too hotshotty about it," he says. "That only good thing about turf field was how they'd let folks hang out and visit after the game. So while my mom and dad were talking to aunts and uncles and friends, all the kids would get pick-up games going on the field. To this day, I remember the feeling of being a kid and catching a touchdown pass on Shields Watkins Field."
He says much of the Knoxville-bashing in Swimming in Sky is just the character. "Some of it is a young guy, 22 years old, in a slump, doesn't have shit going on. I take what he says with a grain of salt.... But some of it was me then, just the way things were." Majors admits to some jaundice in the depiction. By the time he was a teenager, Knoxville strangers would jeer about his uncle's recent fortunes on the field. "It's hard to be related, to be 13, 14, or a 19-year-old out on a date, and have some idiot saying nasty things about your relatives," he says. In late 1992, UT asked Majors to resign, in favor of his interim coach, Phil Fulmer. "What UT did with my uncle pissed me off," he says.
"But Knoxville did me better than a lot of places would have," he says. He comes to town three or four times a year, to visit friends and family—including Uncle John, who's recently moved back.
The character in Swimming in Sky has negative feelings about the snobbish prep school he attended, but Majors himself sounds fond of Webb. Discussing his alma mater brings up an astonishing coincidence. Few recent novelists with Knoxville roots have been quite as successful as Majors, with one big exception: Elizabeth Kostova, author of the international best-seller, The Historian.
Kostova, then known as Elizabeth Johnson, and Inman Majors were in the same small Webb School Class of '83. "She was just so smart, so ahead of her time," he says. "I did not know her well, but liked her. She was so much more mature than the rest of us."
Majors had his first inkling of a career as a novelist just before his senior year, when a summer-reading requirement, A Death in the Family, hit him hard. "I thought, I want to do that. I want to try and make people feel the way James Agee made me feel when he was talking about the 6-year-old boy whose father had just died." It happened to be the same summer as the World's Fair. He had a season pass, and, at 17, thought it "better than the mall."
In grad school in Tuscaloosa, Majors discovered another Knoxville writer. "This is better than Faulkner," a professor said, handing Majors a copy of Cormac McCarthy's Knoxville-based novel, Suttree. "I'd never read him in Knoxville," Majors says. "And it's funny, because I used to hang out at Annie's," the Old City restaurant/nightclub run by the novelist's ex-wife.
Majors claims Suttree is the best novel ever written. Not just by McCarthy, but by anyone. "Many say Blood Meridian is McCarthy's best. I like Suttree better. I like the play between light and dark." Characters in Suttree seem more real, he says, than in McCarthy's other novels. "In Suttree, he was trying to beat Moby Dick, and I think he did. The tension between light and dark that McCarthy maintains for so long is unreal. I think Suttree is the best and most ambitious novel ever written—and I don't think it's just because I'm a homer."
He did time as a bartender in Knoxville and Nashville, but for the last dozen years Majors has found steady work teaching writing, first at Motlow Community College in Tullahoma, then at Hollins in Virginia. Along the way, he published a second novel, Wonderdog, a father-son story set in Tuscaloosa. He's been at JMU for four years, and it sounds like he's expecting to stay. He'd love to write novels full time, he says, but doesn't see that happening anytime soon.
Writing and football wouldn't seem to have much in common, but they're both highly competitive careers in which very few can claim to be successful, and, in both cases, public acclaim is a big part of the deal. Majors says athletic experience helped brace him for the inevitable failures of the book business. "Having people refer to me as ‘Johnny Majors' nephew' or a member of ‘the well-known Tennessee football family' as they used to say in the newspaper, had to have some effect," he says. "I thought I was supposed to be good at something, and I suppose good at something that people in public could measure.
"At some point I figured out I wasn't going to be good enough to play college ball, other than Division III—and that if I wanted to be good at something, I had to find another outlet. And I'd always loved books."
He's still a Majors, though, and it all comes back around. His next book, he says, will be a comedy, of sorts, about football.
Updated: the library has ordered additional copies of the book, shortening the waiting list.