These problems, of course, are what drive the novel. The direction it is driven is backwards, into the past, to Wilbert Baggett's youth; his growing up as the son of an itinerant golf hustler, and a good, faithful, but doomed woman. It's an uncertain, tenuous existence which depends on how successful his father can be in making a living by going from country club to country club to fleece the wealthy with his golf game. When the golf is good, they live well; but any lapse in Dad's game leads to poverty, and all the humiliation and deprivation that go with it. In the bad spells, Wilbert cuts grass for money while his mother does what she can, all the while waiting on Dad to come home with whatever fortune he can hustle up. During one good spell, Wilbert's father returns with a new Cadillac and a pocketful of money. Things are good, but then, just as in the start of the novel, all that changes. Wilbert's parents, along with his aunt and uncle, are killed in a plane crash, and Wilbert winds up living with his two cousins: Min, an older girl, and Wingfoot, a slightly older and very wild, adolescent boy, the children of the aunt and uncle who also died in the plane crash. They all live together in an old, plantation-style house on the banks of the Cape Fear River.
Hanging over the house, and the parentless children who inhabit it, is a history of the family and the place, packed in boxes in an upstairs room. A project of his deceased uncle, the history sits waiting for someone to open up the boxes and reconstruct a family past. As a literary device, the exploration of that past could have been interesting; but, to Inman's credit -- and also as a good example to anyone who wants to make their own life out of what they have in the present, and not rely on the glories of ancestors never known -- this history stays in the boxes. The characters are too busy writing their own histories to bog themselves down in the dust and bones of the long dead past.
This novel does, however, move easily and naturally from the past to the present. While some of the characters, such as Will's longtime friend and attorney, Morris, his son Palmer, and even his wife Clarice, are not deeply developed, and tend to rely on certain stereotypes and assumptions to be understood, Inman creates a life for his main character which is believable and engaging enough to carry on past the shadows of the weaker characters.
A story emerges of a scared, parentless kid, who is lucky enough to have a place to stay, people to help him along, and the intelligence, guts and grace to make a rich life out of his bad luck.
There is a good lesson in this book, and a valuable one because upheaval and change touch everyone. While Will Baggett goes back to the plantation house -- and in some ways, the past -- in his hours of darkness, he does not so much return to the past, as go back to a familiar starting place for the rest of his life. He's a man who has had to invent and re-invent himself to survive and to live the life he wants. Doing that, and understanding that, are what he must do to keep on living. Will Baggett, Raleigh's most popular and well-known personality, learns how fickle and meaningless fame, acclaim and popularity can be. And yet, in some ways, it's an improvement.
I have no idea if anyone will read much of Robert Inman's work in ages to come. It's not Homer, Chaucer or Shakespeare; we are only blessed from age to age with that kind of genius. But we are lucky to have writers like Inman around to tell us stories about ourselves and the people around us; to help us look at ourselves and each other, and realize that we all come from somewhere and are heading somewhere, and that can be pretty damn interesting. *