“Penelope Lemon: Game On”
Author: Inman Majors
Publisher: LSU Press
Price: $25.95 (Cloth)
Inman Majors has become a productive, professional novelist. A Tennessee native, he took his MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama, went to work at James Madison University in Harrisonburg and lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Majors has published his young man novel, “Swimming in Sky,” and a very fine serious novel, “The Millionaires,” centering around the World’s Fair in Knoxville.
But the professional humorist is large in Majors.
“Love’s Winning Plays” is a satire of SEC football and book clubs, and “Wonderdog,” set in Tuscaloosa, is a comic triumph, poking fun at the sometimes feckless behavior of English graduate students and, as usual, lawyers, both relatively easy targets.
In “Penelope Lemon,” Majors is attempting something larger and in these fractious times, bolder.
The novel is told from the point of view of Penelope Lemon, 40 years old, a thoroughly modern woman. Recently divorced for the second time, Penelope shares custody of Theo, a quiet nine-year-old boy who is picked on at school—wedgies, wet willies, Indian burns.
In the first scene, she is watching Theo at baseball practice where he is a complete failure. At bat, Theo doesn’t just miss the ball; he refuses to swing. Fans urge, “Just swing it once.”
And “Just move the bat a little.”
In the field, right field of course, Theo is playing with his hat: “flinging [it] up in the air and attempting—and failing—to catch it upon its return.”
Penelope’s mind wanders to her divorce. She wonders “if she’d still be married…if she’d never seen… [her husband James] in his yellow kimono robe…a short little matronly number that came just to his knees and no farther.” The robe turns her off completely, but sadly, wearing the robe turns James on.
Mornings had been hard.
Now life is hard, generally.
Penelope and James, it seems, had no assets to divide and she is living, gratefully but not happily, in the basement of her mother’s house. She wants, desperately, to get her own place but is dead broke.
She is employed at Coonskins, a steakhouse where her uniform is a denim skirt, white Coonskins T-shirt, cowboy boots and her hair in a perky cowgirl ponytail.
Coonskins is decorated with “coonskin caps, and a few replica flintlock rifles with names like Old Betsy and Old Tick Licker, …scattered stuffed raccoons and foxes on every available ledge… [and] peanut shells all over the floor.”
Matters look bleak generally but of course she has a cadre of still-married, loyal, if judgmental friends who commiserate, supply the chardonnay, and give advice:
Work on her spiritual well-being by reading “biographies of various Tibetans.”
Her mother has, on her own, signed Penelope up for a dating service, Divote: For Modern Christians on the Go. The reader knows this cannot work well for Penelope, but this device gives the novelist several comic alleys to go down.
After some misadventure with impious Christians on the Go, she allows herself a bout of carnal delight with her first ex---known only as HHR, Huge Huge Redneck, not a bad guy, really, but still a boy devoted to marijuana.
“Penelope Lemon” has plenty to enjoy, but some readers will notice there are loose threads at the end of “Game On.”
Why does James have money for a nice home in the suburbs? He claimed to be broke at the time of the divorce.
Is James “dating” Theo’s teacher?
Penelope receives genteel, formally worded emails from a gentleman and poetry lover signed Fitzwilliam Darcy. Who is this unlikely creature?
After Penelope leaves Coonskins, she is employed by the eccentric and mysterious Missy. They connect partly because both enjoy bodice rippers like “The Tycoon’s Dare” and the music of AC/DC, Metallica and Zeppelin, and recognize a kindred spirit.
Missy also seems to be the heiress to a mobile home park empire, and Penelope’s job seems to have no duties attached.
These loose ends are purposeful, not careless. In several interviews, Majors has declared himself a devotee of P. G. Wodehouse, especially the Jeeves and Wooster novels.
Bertie Wooster was of course, a wealthy, unemployed, one might even say useless, young man in the London of the 1920s, but following Bertie in novel after novel we meet his eccentric aunt who owns a lady’s magazine, an uncle who treasures prize pigs and another who collects silver, most spectacularly a creamer in the shape of a cow. We meet the Drones, a London club full of useless men.
Penelope, the impoverished divorced mom is perhaps meant to be, as Bertie Wooster was for his time, a representative of a stratum of society in her time, that is our time, by which Majors can explore and satirize a slice of our equally peculiar twenty-first century American culture. Comparing Majors to P. G. Wodehouse or to Jane Austen, who was after much the same thing, is a stretch, granted, but it is good to see a novelist whose reach may exceed his grasp.
I understand the second installment is written and on its way.
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.