Robert Penn McInerney

A review of Last of the Savages by Jay McInerney

The Last of the Savages

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WITHIN the confined universe of commercial literature it is not uncommon to recognize in the writing of one author an allusion or event recalling the work of another. References are a natural way for writers to pay tribute to peers and predecessors. One well-known tribute in American literature comes near the end of The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield finds and erases an obscenity scrawled in a school stairwell, an obvious tip of the literary cap by J. D. Salinger to F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose Nick Carraway, twenty years earlier, was dismayed to find an epithet in the same spirit etched on Jay Gatsby's steps in The Great Gatsby.

Occasionally, however, a work comes along in which the motivation for literary cap-tipping seems less straightforward. In such a work references and passages found in a previously published volume are echoed so insistently as to leave the reader wondering whether the similarities constitute a deliberate though unacknowledged homage--or not.

Jay McInerney's ambitious new novel of the American South is such a work: it contains such an uncanny series of likenesses to Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1946) that to attempt a comparison of the two novels becomes almost irresistible.

In The Last of the Savages, McInerney relates the rise to power, and the eventual decay, of Will Savage, an idealistic, mercurial southerner bent on creating an empire in the name of an oppressed people--in this case, the ceaselessly exploited black blues musicians of the South. Narrating the story is Patrick Keane, Savage's best friend and sometime confidant, a passive, self-effacing bystander to the chaos who nevertheless remains close enough to his subject to report from the insider's point of view, yet is just far enough outside the circle of corruption to avoid the mammon that ultimately leads to his friend's collapse.

Many readers will recall roughly the same story line in King's Men. Those who do not can simply repeat the paragraph above, substitute the name Willie Stark for Will Savage, poor white southern taxpayers for poor black southern blues musicians, and Jack Burden for Patrick Keane, and come up with a pretty fair summation of that book's plot. The alliterative similarity of the protagonists' names aside, however, such a story line, or device by which to tell it, is not in and of itself necessarily remarkable--Fitzgerald, for one, employed the same innocent-witness-relates-tale-of-American-Dream-and-demise in Gatsby. But the parallels between Savages and King's Men do not flower at the surface only to wither in the subtext. In fact, they sprout sturdy roots that plunge continually deeper as the novel passes through its seasons.

Strikingly similar casts of characters surround Savage and Stark. Each hires a gun-wielding flunky to serve as bodyguard and sycophant (Stubblefield in Savage's case, Sugar-Boy in Stark's). Both men tomcat with a string of bimbos, floozies, and otherwise available women while remaining technically married but separated from their wives, and both eventually return to their wives. Both are labeled "nigger-lovers" by enemies.

Plot details in the two books seem scripted by parallel minds. An early scene in each book presents duck hunting as the narrator's rite of passage into southern manhood. Both narrators receive instruction from tough-as-nails but paternal southern gentlemen. Keane's mentor is Cordell Savage, Will's father ("On an incoming bird, just try to put the bead below its beak"); Burden's is Judge Montague Irwin ("You got to lead a duck, son"). Symbolic relevance of the hunting episodes to subsequent events is later revealed.

Both narrators also find themselves betrayed by their friend-subject. Savage winds up sleeping with Lollie Baker, the object of Keane's adolescent desire, Stark with Anne Stanton, Jack Burden's onetime girlfriend. These women occupy like positions in the narrators' sexual development: Keane finds himself on the brink of losing his virginity to Baker when a surprise appearance by his school housemaster thwarts the proceedings. Keane hides in the closet to avoid scandal. In a similar sequence of events the virginal and near-naked Burden and Stanton are nearly discovered by Burden's mother. Stanton hides in the bathroom, and honor is preserved.

HOLLYWOOD could not have dreamed up a coincidence more improbable than the one that introduces subplots in both books in the form of Civil War-era diaries and letters used by the respective narrators as the centerpiece of a university history thesis. In Savages history major Keane uses excerpts from the 1861 diary of Binnie Pilcher Savage as a jumping-off point for research into a tragic plantation saga that began with the sale of the wife of a slave. In King's Men history doctoral candidate Burden bases his dissertation on the 1850s and 1860s papers of Cass Mastern, which tell the story of a plantation disaster following the sale of a slave wife. Both projects conclude unsatisfactorily--Keane's work is rejected for publication; Burden simply gives up on his before graduation.

Paternal confusion and Oedipal conflict grow in fertile soil. Keane is the biological father of Savage's son, through artificial insemination, though his own wife doesn't know it. Burden ultimately discovers that his true father is Judge Irwin. Part of Cordell Savage's reputation is based on a legend that he killed his abusive father to protect his mother. Burden confesses that "by killing my father I had saved my mother's soul."

In Savages, McInerney uses the same vehicle of redemption that Warren used in King's Men. In the latter Willie Stark tries to reclaim his once-pure soul by building a gargantuan hospital for the South's common folk, a place where "any man or woman or child who is sick or in pain" may receive free treatment. Stark becomes obsessed by the project, which he intends to keep unsoiled by the rotten politics and dirty money that have corrupted him. McInerney bestows on his hero the same altruistic plan as recompense for a wanton past. After selling his interest in a record label, Savage immediately pours $20 million "into a free clinic and hospital in the Mississippi Delta." Savage's wife, Taleesha, says later, "The free clinic was a wonderful idea, but if he doesn't stop giving away money . . . I think that's what he wants, you know, to give it all away, to wash his hands."

And though in the end Stark dies and Savage lives, their lives, along with the lives of their biographers, are summed up in similar style. On the last page of his book McInerney writes, "If this has been the story of Will's life, more than my own, that is because he has lived." Fifty years earlier, four pages from the end of his book, Warren wrote, "This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too. For I have a story. It is the story of a man who lived. . . ."

McInerney makes fleeting references to previously published material. In Chapter 14 he writes, "I think it was Faulkner--usually a safe bet in these matters--who said the Mississippi Delta originated in the lobby of the Peabody." He mentions favorite books, poets, and authors, and as many southern icons as possible: Robert E. Lee, Elvis Presley, Medgar Evers, Tennessee Williams, Gone With the Wind, Alabama sharecroppers, Shilo, Chickamauga, Martin Luther King Jr., Huck Finn, Robert Johnson, Colonel Tom Parker, James Earl Ray, Jimmy Carter, Civil War re-enactors, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, the Ku Klux Klan, Otis Redding, Sam Phillips, and Henry Clay, among others. But he does not mention All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren, or even Huey Long, the famed southern politician upon whose life King's Men is widely believed to be based, although Long is never mentioned in that book. The closest McInerney gets to any acknowledgment of inspiration from King's Men comes in a cast-off line from Will Savage: "All you need to know is that it's about as venal and corrupt as Louisiana politics."

What is one to make of all this? Four questions come to mind. Was everyone expected to notice all these parallels (as one notices the parallels between Roger's Version and The Scarlet Letter, or between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet)? Was nobody supposed to notice?Are the parallels a matter of sheer coincidence--just one of those things?And finally, what does McInerney do with the rich lode of material he is working--what kind of a novel is this, what are its aspirations, and to what extent does it succeed?Unfortunately, the book itself, the book jacket, and the accompanying publicity materials are mute on the first three questions, and so we must suspend inquiry and turn to the fourth.

McInerney has a reputation as a stylist, but in Savages his prose has all the sparkle of a parking ticket. Set-piece descriptions end in lines like "What can I say--we were all very young at the time." Some of the dialogue sags under the weight of generic exposition. For example, here is Cordell Savage on his son's involvement with a black woman:

"It may be up here [at Yale] . . . there's nothing wrong with it. . . . But I'm telling you that down south this is a very grave matter. We have a heritage. We live in the world that was given to us. Even if I wanted to give my blessings, the fact is Will would have to contend with the judgment of an entire society. . . . And I don't think I have to tell you, Patrick, it would kill his poor mother."

That is boilerplate southern. If you heard it in a movie you'd hoot. Here is boilerplate New York City:

They dropped me off at the Yale Club, and I watched the cab pull away, feeling the bittersweet loneliness of the city as the champagne faded from the sooty canyon of Vanderbilt Avenue. . . . Someday these would be my streets. Meanwhile, I found myself on Fifth Avenue, moving with a crowd admiring the lavish windows of Saks. . . .

Saks gets fresher stuff from its billing department. "Bittersweet loneliness" is the equivalent of George Bush's "Message: I care." It's stage direction for a bad play.

Whatever McInerney's rank among modern novelists, he has yet to produce a work of real stature. The poet Peter Davison once remarked, unkindly, that if in McInerney's first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, one replaced every use of the word "cocaine" with the word "chocolate," it would be a children's book.

"There is always something," Willie Stark keeps saying to the naive Jack Burden: there are human flaws to be found everywhere, if you look for them hard enough. And Will Savage, ever the watchdog for cultural raids on his southern turf, gives Patrick Keane an early lesson on the right and wrong ways (to paraphrase Isaac Newton) to stand upon the shoulders of giants, so that one might see farther. In the first meeting between the two, after playing several blues records, Savage berates Keane for his naiveté. "When, after the song ended, I ventured that I liked the Beatles, [Will] sneered. 'This is the real thing,' he said. 'At least the Stones acknowledge their sources.'"

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1996; Robert Penn McInerney; Volume 278, No. 1; pages 106-109.