“The Gold-Plated Scarab & Other Stories” By: Norman McMillan
“The Gold-Plated Scarab & Other Stories”
Author: Norman McMillan
Publisher: GreyWalk Books, 2022
Price: $16.00 (Paperback)
Stories Explore Different Alabama Personalities
Norman McMillan, a well-known and popular figure in Alabama literary circles, taught in the English department in Montevallo from 1971 through 2000.
In 1997 McMillan was leading a group of local citizens in a memoir writing class at the Hale County Library and was moved to write his own memoir, “Distant Son,” which was published in 2002. In this really moving work he tells the story of his childhood as the son of sharecroppers, one of ten children, in the forties and fifties, in Hale and Tuscaloosa counties. Against long odds, he took the BA and MA from UA and then the PhD from the University of Michigan.
In 2000, McMillan’s play, “Against a Copper Sky,” was produced in Monroeville. This one-man play dramatizes a day in the life of Truman Capote, on the road, on a reading tour, alone in a motel room trying unsuccessfully not to sip vodka as the day progresses. Later, in 2006, McMillan’s play “Ashes of Roses” was produced in several Alabama cities. This work was based on three short stories by Mary Ward Brown who, late in life, had huge success with her stories and memoir.
There are very few Alabama playwrights—Rebecca Gilman is our best—and McMillan’s plays deserve to be revived.
Now, nine years later McMillan has published “The Gold-Plated Scarab,” eight short stories, some previously published, and an essay.
These are amusing, insightful reading and deserve an audience.
My favorite, perhaps is “Cosmo Girl.”
As you might suspect, McMillan’s short stories are little dramas. This one could be staged as a four-person play.
The protagonist tells how he and his wife, Catherine, truly happily married, nice middle-class folk, avid gardeners, are often joined in their yard by their rich and pretentious neighbor, Jackie, unhappily married, who owns fur coats and claims to be a cousin of Jackie O. The three chat and drink, Jackie favoring Cosmopolitans. Then, sadly, Catherine dies. Roger is heartbroken. Jackie consoles him. Roger cannot imagine infidelity, even as a widower, or sex with a married neighbor woman.
Then he can and does.
It turns out these Alabamians were more cosmopolitan than they knew.
Another favorite is “The Waiting Room.” This is observational humor, again potentially a one-act play, this time with a medium-sized cast, and is told from the point of view of a middle-aged man, probably an English professor, possibly Norman McMillan, who is sitting in a physician’s waiting room trying to read Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man.”
This tradition, of the sophisticated observer of simple folk, goes back to Old Southwestern humor in Alabama before the Civil War and way before that.
Of course, the others in the room, mostly good country people as Flannery O’Conner might have put it, illustrate more quirks and oddities, more aspects of human nature, than even Alexander Pope could do. There’s a loud, vulgar teenage boy, a couple of very old folks, a young woman executive, possibly in finance. They discuss various news items of the day, especially the death of John Kennedy Jr.in a plane crash.
Various theories are broached, some bordering on conspiracy.
Comedy ensues, for the narrator and the reader. Conversations among these semi-uninformed range from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the bigoted to the accidentally philosophically profound.
The essay which concludes the volume, “Two Chairs: A Memoir,” is very different in subject and tone. Two finely made ladder-back chairs have been in McMillan’s family since antebellum days, made by a family slave, a craftsman, a joiner.
What is McMillan, an enlightened, liberal, twenty-first-century person, to make of these chairs, what should he do with them? They provoke ruminations on history, race, and on Confederate monuments.
He decides, at least for the moment, to keep them as a reminder of “the pride and skill” of the man who made them, concluding that to use them is to honor that nameless, talented person every day.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.