The New Southern Gentleman tries to use the methods of what is called “dirty realism” to examine a very different sort of character: the privileged upper class Southerner. It succeeds in doing that – it fails in igniting a meaningful discussion about how little difference there is between lower class Southerners and those whom those Southerners see as their “Betters.”
As we end 2015 – and as I prepare to change my approach to my infamous reading lists project (mainly due to circumstances beyond my control) – I have decided to indulge myself by writing an essay about my first book – the novel The New Southern Gentleman. I have wanted to write about NSG for a long time (the novel appeared in 2002), but two factors have deterred me:
1) I am terrible at that thing so valued on the Interwebs called self-promotion. Publicly discussing my work is uncomfortable for me unless I am in a forum to which I have been invited for that express purpose. I am happy to discuss the works of others, reluctant to discuss my own. This is not the path to fame and fortune, dear reader. Avoid it if you can.
2) In the Age of Social Media, I doubt seriously that anything I have to say will make any impression on anyone other than family, friends, and my colleagues at the blogs (here and here) where I write about books and writing. This is the truth about social media: social media are primarily vehicles for those who crave and demand attention for – well, sometimes it seems for every act they engage in, every belief they hold dear, every idea they agree/disagree with. They are more like party conversations than anything else.
Again, as you may have discerned from #1, that is not I.
Still, the urge to discuss my work has welled up within me strongly enough to make me write this essay. I ask your indulgence. I’ll get back to touting other writers in my next outing.
Dan Deal, the main character of The New Southern Gentleman, comes from a privileged background: his family has been in the lumber business for many years, though because of business decisions made by his great grandfather the family’s wealth has been reduced – unjustly, Dan believes. Dan has grown up in the household of his courtly, though indulgent, grandfather; his father was killed when he was a toddler and his mother remarried and moved to France – after having ceded custody of Dan to his paternal grandfather. That grandfather, Augustus Stuart Deal IV, has given him a classic Southern gentry upbringing:
He taught him to be unselfish, moral, and scrupulous. He taught him to be chivalrous to but mystified by women. He taught him to brook no insult. He taught him manners, and he taught him comportment.
Dan, though, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s finds some of his grandfather’s precepts tougher to follow than he would like them to be – and adjusts accordingly:
By degrees he began to moderate the precepts he had been taught. Gradually, he came to the conclusion that birth and social position were more important than breeding and behavior in marking out a gentleman.
The rest of the novel recounts Dan’s actions in a series of incidents (a run-in with a wealthy but boorish Northerner, his disastrous visit to the home of a new girlfriend, his callous break up of that relationship to pursue another woman) that mark him as little different from the sort of brutal, misguided, fickle, self-centered “trailer trash” one might encounter in a work by Richard Ford or Harry Crews.
There is another dimension to the novel, too, one that most readers never seem to recognize. Daniel Randolph Deal is clearly a near pitch perfect young Republican of a certain type – condemning of the behaviors of others, condoning or rationalizing or excusing of his own. Why readers have not seized on Dan Deal as “portrait of a member of the House of Representatives as a young man” mystifies me. I suspect that is more of a scholarly reading than most readers might give the work – though the clues are there at a couple of points, as in an exchange among Dan, his law school classmate, another well bred Virginian, Wythe Alexander (Alex) Radford, and their landlord. In classic good cop/bad cop style, they force him to give them a lower rent price on the house he leases them. Dan goes so far as to play the class card:
You must decide, Mr Lefever. If you wish our sort of people – gentlemen – to live here, then you must accept our offer.
Lefever accepts. Like most ordinary people, he is never quite sure why he accepts. He is made to feel inferior and like it.
It is this sort of presumptive air of superiority that one senses Dan expects to carry him through life. His sort of people expect one set of rules for themselves, another for everyone else. The problem, of course, is that he never gets his comeuppance. Some readers find this problematic. I point out only this – look around you. How many times have you seen his type get a genuine comeuppance?
So that, dear reader, is what The New Southern Gentleman is – the story an entitled, self-righteous bastard who makes a career about complaining others don’t respect his entitled, self-righteous bastardliness even as he revels in his entitled, self-righteous bastardliness. It does not make for a fun or diverting or entertaining read.
Only a worthwhile one.