My esteemed colleague and friend, the late Leonard Gill, in these pages, said this about an earlier novel by Inman Majors: "Until Wonderdog's climactic scene, expect the unexpected: unstoppered sarcasm laced with real feeling from the mind and mouth of Devaney Degraw, a wise guy whose catalog of complaints runs just this side of stream-of-consciousness (punctuation optional) in a funny, full-tilt second novel from the author of the underrecognized Swimming in Sky."
It's not a bad introduction to Penelope Lemon: Game On! (a clunky title), Majors' newest. The sarcasm is still ripe and the surprises still fresh. In this, his fifth novel, the author attempts something mildly audacious: He sees through his protagonist's feminine eyes. It's as if Majors is channeling his inner Jodi Picoult. It works because he keeps it blithesome and because he convincingly gets inside the sensibility of a middle-aged woman. It's a noteworthy job of literary ventriloquism.
Penelope Lemon is a recently divorced 40-year-old woman who lives with her parents and works at a faux-western restaurant called Coonskins. She has a young son, who is the worst player on his little league baseball team, and who is bullied. He craves attention at school and seeks it in any way possible, including sequential farting. Penelope's friends are married and have little sympathy for her. Enter Missy, the mother of another little leaguer. She is brassy and blunt and, basically, a lot of fun. She's a breath of fresh air for Penelope. This friendship, written with a surprisingly empathetic comprehension of how women interact, forms the turning point in the book, the fulcrum between rising action and falling action. And stodgy Penelope, when teamed with reckless Missy, begins her quest, the one given all heroes and heroines, to find her true self.
Penelope Lemon: Game On! is a sort of redneck Anne Tyler story. Many of the denizens of Lemon's North Carolina town of Hillsboro are blue collar workers, good time Charlies, chipper housewives, trailer park dwellers, men and women who watch Matlock and have never suffered an existential crisis. Literature is never mentioned. Walmart is. Video games are. Applebee's and Outback are and are characterized here as good grazing spots for newly single middle-age women.
Majors writes: "On the way to Coonskins, Penelope took in the ambience of her hometown, the Walmart and Applebee's and Target that had replaced the local employers of her youth." He knows this milieu like he knows his audience. The book often seems to be winking at the reader, nudging him or her with a grin and the promise of a good joke. And Majors also knows the parameters of a good yarn. His broad sense of humor, some observational and some jokey, and willingness to put his characters through rough patches, that are both absurd and hilarious, makes the book a diverting page-turner. A chapter set in Coonskins, on a night when everything goes pear-shaped, is a comical set-piece that could have come from a superior episode of Designing Women.
Missy is a catalyst for the change in Penelope as well as a way of supercharging the narrative. She puts the novel's foot on the gas. One can sense that Majors is relishing his character's wit, outlandishness, and lack of fear. It's the kind of character authors live for, part scoundrel, part savior. Most of Missy's ideas are bad ones, but they keep on coming. She's like an NC-17 Peppermint Patty.
Inman Majors is an entertainer. Penelope Lemon: Game On! is mostly jokey and light-hearted, but Majors is also capable of some tender writing, especially having to do with the bond between Penelope and her nine-year-old son, Theo. And the relationships with both her exes, including Theo's father, are engagingly and authentically rendered. Penelope is a well-drawn character, an interesting protagonist, who carries the story with her charm and aplomb. Her counsel to her son about baseball is at the book's heart, and advice she is, simultaneously, giving herself: "Swing every time. Baseball is more fun if you're just letting it rip. Everything's more fun if you let it rip."
Inman Majors signs Penelope Lemon: Game On! at Novel Thursday, August 16th.