“Operation Dimwit: A Penelope Lemon Novel”
Author: Inman Majors
Publisher: LSU Press
Price: $29.95 (Hardcover)
Inman Majors, a Tennessean with an MFA from UA, is in mid-career and in fine form. He has an amazing and underrated serious novel in “The Millionaires,” set at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, but also that rarest of gifts these days, a comic sensibility.
His “Wonder Dogs,” set in Tuscaloosa and Montgomery, is a romp that satirizes English graduate students and lawyers, both of which abound in those cities. The novel “Love’s Winning Plays” is so bold as to make fun of several aspects of SEC football—the deification of the coach, for example—AND the banality of the questions discussed at women’s book groups, both topics not for the faint-hearted.
A shrewd student of publishing in America, Majors has noticed—haven’t we all—that the real money is to be had in series, usually crime series—whether the controlling idea is cozies that all take place in a Chinese restaurant or books that run from “A is For,” all the way through the alphabet.
Novels in series generate a loyal readership, folks who look forward to the next and buy it when it comes out. Majors means to create not a detective series, but a comic series, with authors such as the Wooster and Jeeves novels of P. G. Wodehouse or Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street as his models, and I think he can carry this off.
Majors’ comic creation is Penelope Lemon, a contemporary divorced woman, with lots of problems and few resources—mainly a few friends, a pile of romance novels and Chardonnay.
In the first installment, “Penelope Lemon: Game On!” Majors set it all up. Now on her own, Penelope must forge a new life. Really broke, she is living in her mother’s basement with her shy, odd little boy Theo who is addicted to his albuterol inhaler and PlinkyMo, an on-line game one imagines to be like Pokémon. She has no residual longing for her ex, James, who is an aggravating nag who was deeply distressed by utility bills and timed her showers but was unfazed by “charges for his kayak, which lay unpaddled in the garage, his archery arrows never fired, or his model volcano that resided so snugly in the hall closet all those years….”
Nevertheless, Penelope is distressed when he begins dating Theo’s teacher.
Penelope gets a job as a secretary at Rolling Acres, a trailer court, one of forty owned by Missy and her father. Missy is a rich Yankee transplant who sees Penelope as a hick and uses her as linguistic and cultural translator as much as for typing and filing.
In this second installment, with her new small salary, Penelope has rented a little house outside of fictional Hillsboro, Virginia, and can begin dating, always a comic vein to be mined. What music is hip? What wine? What dessert? (Is it still Tiramisu, as it was in “When Harry Met Sally?”) What kind of below-the-belt hairsculpting? She muses: “Who knew what was current now? It could be crop circles for all she knew. It could be little Hitler mustaches…”
She first sees the rich, eccentric Fitzwilliam Darcy who paints nude women, has a cat named Algernon Moncrieff and whose bathroom contains a bidet Penelope comically misuses. She is asked out by “Active Brad,” a very fit man at her gym, but he is bald, which seems to be a deal-breaker. Anyway, bald or not, that fellow is lusted after by an instructor at the club and misunderstandings ensue.
The “Operation Dimwit” of the title is wonderfully absurd, the three stooges in Virginia. Dewitt, the redneck who leases the property to the trailer park, has contractual rights to use the office toilet daily, gross enough, but he also steals items from the office, including one very personal item, important even if called a toy.
Missy comes to believe Dewitt, aka Dimwit, has trained an army of skunks to protect his little trailer. We learn a lot about skunks—for example they are not nocturnal, but crepuscular, venturing out at dawn and dusk—so Missy hires a colorful local, The Critter Catcher, to help round up the skunks so Missy and Penelope can break into Dimwit’s trailer and search.
You know all this will go wrong and it does.
The Penelope novels are clever, amusing and mildly addictive. I am ready for the next one.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.