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Crossroads

Memphis: off the page, on the scene.

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I'd always liked literature," Inman Majors says. "But when I thought about books, I thought about people in New York, London, Paris — famous places. The summer before my senior year in high school, though, I read James Agee's A Death in the Family. It struck me like a thunderclap: Oh man, I've walked across that bridge! I've walked down that road! I know how that little boy feels. You can write fiction about Knoxville, Tennessee!"

And Major has in his latest novel, The Millionaires (W.W. Norton). He writes about the political workings in Nashville too, with Memphis if not on the page then in the person of a certain black state senator from West Tennessee who can maybe be of help to Roland Cole. Cole is the Knoxville banker who'd like to win the Tennessee governorship, and with the help of his businessman brother J.T. and the added help of political strategist Mike Teague, Roland might just make it into office. If he doesn't, he and his brother have another plan: a world's fair in Knoxville. It'll just take some doing convincing Knoxville's old guard and skeptical citizens. But, hey, this is the late 1970s. The South is becoming the New South.

"I wanted to write a novel set right before the Sun Belt migration," Majors — son a well-known Tennessee lobbyist; nephew of a better known Tennessee football coach — says. "A novel set one foot in the past, one foot in the future. Old money; new money. The urban South; the suburban South. I wanted to prove that we aren't all sitting on our front porches down here, fanning ourselves and drinking sweet tea. I get asked about 'Southern fiction.' Why can't we just call it 'fiction'?"

Why indeed, when a story such as this one (with characters and elements borrowed from the headlines of the day) can so convincingly (and entertainingly) picture how power gets brokered and how money gets made (and unmade).

And speaking of: You want to counterfeit millions of dollars? Ask a guy named Sliver in Pickwick. He can get your hands on the paper made from the pulp made from the trees shipped down the Tennessee River — the same paper the U.S. Treasury uses as legal tender. If you can't locate Sliver, see Carlos Ferrar, the mastermind behind a counterfeiting scheme in Memphian Frank Saitta's debut novel, One Hour Martin-izing (AuthorHouse), by Saitta's own admission perhaps the first novel whose central character is a dry-cleaner.

"I gotta tell ya," the Brooklyn-born Saitta says, "in all my days of watching movies and TV and reading books I have never seen a story where the main character is a dry-cleaner."

That's what got Saitta, senior director for Hilton's Homewood Suites division in Memphis, onto the topic at his weekend home at Pickwick. "Cleaners are a big part of our lives," he says. "We give them our most intimate stuff. We trust them. We bank on their integrity. We establish a relationship with them."

Lucky you if the relationship you establish with your dry-cleaner resembles the one Martin Tyroni (a cleaner on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) and his wife Cassidy (a hotshot real estate agent) have with Carlos and a Latin bombshell named Milagro. Unlucky for you if, like Martin and Cassidy, you bank on Carlos' integrity. It all comes out, in the end, in the wash. But not before every last character in One Hour Martin-izing gets caught up doing something they shouldn't be caught at, those counterfeit millions just the start. But Martin? He's a real winning character, whether he's that guy on the barstool next to yours or the one handling your unmentionables.

Unmentionable too: the photos a contemporary artist named Martin (!), who's been in a coma for years, kept from his wife, Jarvis. When Jarvis discovers them, she has to reckon with them, which means reckoning with Martin's gallery owner and with a trio of hipster house-husbands whom Jarvis meets in a Laundromat (!) near her loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

That's a thumbnail sketch for The Kept Man (Riverhead Books), a keenly observed, smart, affecting novel by Jami Attenberg. But those photos, and Martin's comatose condition, and that gallery owner, and those three fellow launderers, and Martin's parents aren't all that Jarvis has on her hands. She's dealing with Davis. He's another artist and friend of Martin's — a real character, even on the hothouse New York art scene. He's faithful (to Jarvis), but he's also a real piece of work. And he's not from Knoxville, Nashville, Pickwick, Manhattan, or Brooklyn. His hometown (where guys on the order of Davis are right at home): Memphis, Tennessee.

All three of the above authors will be at Davis-Kidd Booksellers: Inman Majors on Thursday, February 5th, at 6 p.m.; Frank Saitta on Saturday, February 7th, at 1 p.m.; and Jami Attenberg on Tuesday, February 10th, at 6 p.m.

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