Readers who love a good wallow in the Southern Gothic steam bath of a Pat Conroy novel ("The Prince of Tides," "The Great Santini") are always ready to investigate a possible literary heir. "The Fortunate Ones" by Ed Tarkington, set in Nashville through the 1980s and '90s, bears all the markings of this lineage.
Charlie Boykin, son of a cocktail waitress, tells the story of his friendship with "the most exceptional person I ever knew," a golden boy named Arch Creigh. They meet when Charlie receives a scholarship to start ninth grade at a fancy prep school called Yeatman, and handsome, wealthy Arch is appointed his "big brother."
Their connection ends two decades later, when Creigh commits suicide during a run for the U.S. Senate. (This is revealed in a prologue.) There's a girl they both love, there are mansions and swimming pools, alcoholics and adulterers, bigots and snobs, and most important, there are dark secrets warping hearts and lives.
Despite this perfect list of ingredients, I didn't love "The Fortunate Ones" as much as I expected to. "If not for that day," reflects Charlie about his scholarship, "I would never have left East Nashville for Belle Meade, nor would I have understood how the conditions of life in one world depend on the whims of those in another." The Gatsby-esque plot suggested by this comment — a tale of white men and their struggles — feels a bit dated in 2020. And while there are Black characters, they are primarily plot devices, as are the women.
The underdevelopment of characters is a sign of another problem with the book — an unusual one. It is too short. I think the reason my literary gaydar did not detect the closeted character is that the seeds are not adequately sown. Some of the biggest decisions the characters make didn't seem to flow from their personalities, at least as I understood them.
And when the plot moved to San Miguel de Allende, it barely stayed a chapter. I enjoyed the writing, and I would have been happy to spend more time in Mexico, and in Nashville, too.
One of the best developed characters in "The Fortunate Ones" is the city of Nashville itself, its neighborhoods, its culture, its character. "Nashville has always been proud of its reputation for good manners. You really notice it when you've been away," notes Charlie. "The general kindness of the place works on you like a balm. … But there's a fine line between politeness and fraudulence."
That line runs not just through his friend Arch's campaign for mayor, framed as a battle for the "spirit of Nashville," but through every one of his relationships. To his credit, Tarkington does not stick a happy ending on this story.
Reading this book made me see that I have changed as a reader. Tarkington is likely evolving, too. We live in interesting times.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead" and host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
The Fortunate Ones
By: Ed Tarkington.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 320 pages, $26.95.