The New Southern Gentleman by Jim Booth

[5 March 2003]

By Valerie MacEwan

Jim Booth, a North Carolina [USA] native, is currently the Director of the Effective Writing Program at the University of Maryland University College. PopMatters contacted him in Maryland after attending his book reading at The Regulator Bookstore in Durham, NC. PopMatters: Daniel Randolph Deal [the main character in The New Southern Gentleman] has the required “bloodline” for inclusion in the illusive membership list of Southern Aristocracy. The influx of new blood into the south has affected this list in what ways? How much does personal wealth and property, rather than “bloodline”, influence membership in 2003? Jim Booth: I never thought I’d be saying this about the South, but we’ve been bought. Money matters a WHOLE LOT in the South now in ways it didn’t even 25 years ago, at the time this novel takes place (the 1970s). But the signs are there in Dan Deal. He studies the law, surely a “gentleman’s” profession, but he is interested in the law because of its financial rewards. This influx of “new blood,” as you call it, flows green rather than red. And for my part, I haven’t seen the great good it’s done us. I look at my hometown, Eden, NC, done in by the move of the textile industry offshore and the lack of corporate citizenship from the “carpetbagger” that came in, Miller Brewing, and my adopted hometown, Winston-Salem, nearly done in by the self-aggrandizing desertions of Wachovia and U.S. Airways (Piedmont Airlines) and the deconstruction of R. J. Reynolds , and I see a pattern. Urbanization. Loss of connection with the region, the people, the culture. These things are reflective of the “new” New South that Dan is a harbinger of. It’s ALL about money, now. It talks and pedigree walks. PM: In Pilgrim in the Ruins, a biography of Walker Percy, author Jay Tolson writes about Walker’s intentions in The Last Gentleman. “Percy knew very well where his novel was heading. He knew he was writing about the wandering of a lost southern romantic, a spiritual as well as physical odyssey that would lead the troubled protagonist to a vision of possible salvation in the act of baptism (not the protagonist’s baptism, as in The Gramercy Winner, but the baptism of another of the novel’s characters). To some extent, Percy’s model was Dostoyevksy’s Idiot, although Percy envision a character even worse off than the epileptic holy fool, Prince Myshkin . Will Barrett, living in a thoroughly secularized world, only dimly perceives that his life may have some meaning beyond this world.” JB: Deal, in The New Southern Gentleman, thoroughly embraces his secularized world, believing not only in the proper bloodline, but also in the spiritual quality of a proper automobile as well as the importance of location in choosing one’s living quarters. Like Barrett, he doesn’t consider his life having meaning beyond the here and now. How intentional was the omission of a religious conversion in advancing Deal’s character? Do you consider that part of the soulless abyss he seems to personify at the end, when confronted by Evelyn?
Evelyn moved to his side. She whispered into his ear, her words almost a hiss, “Yes. You are talking to Grandfather. I’m sure you’ll be able to convince him that I’m lying, that I’m just some whore, that you’re a gentleman who made a mistake, got caught in some passing fancy.”
JB: Dan is not a religious person. First, he’s an Episcopalian, and there’s no requirement of religiosity for us (I’m one, too). Second, that religious conversion stuff is just SO Modernist in a way. Dan’s a post-modern Southerner. His religion is like his Porsche-part of the right image, something for consumption. He’d probably laugh at the idea of religious conversion-although he’d be perfectly okay with prosecuting or persecuting someone for not observing the superficial niceties of “proper respect.” Conversion of any kind involves self-awareness, and Dan has precious little of that. PM: What’s it like, since this is your first published novel, to travel around to bookstores for book signings? I know you recently were in Durham at The Regulator Bookstore. Tell us about the experience(s) you’ve had while traveling. JB: I’m an old touring rock musician, so the road is nothing new. Obviously the venues are smaller, and it’s quieter, but it’s a lot like touring with a rock band. People come to see you, people want to pretend they know you, people you haven’t seen in years show up. It’s fun, and you don’t have to worry nearly as much about police trouble, equipment getting stolen, etc. I’ve reconnected with several people who had fallen off my radar and connected with some I wanted to meet. It’s been great that way.

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Mind Your Manners

“Place is of ultimate importance only to those lost souls who hope that they can escape themselves . . .”
— Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy

The blood of John Randolph flows through young Daniel Randolph Deal, Jim Booth’s protagonist in The New Southern Gentleman. Bloodlines and property—the two components which determine social status in the South—define the very fabric of southern aristocracy. In Booth’s book, the rules of this century (which include attending the correct school, belonging to the “right” fraternity, and keeping up appearances) are as important now as they were a hundred years ago.

The story of Dan Deal, his coming-of-age at the University of Virginia, and his expectations about the future, centers on the young man’s perceptions of his preferred social status as a member of the mythic southern aristocratic class.

Early on, when Dan was a small boy, the Deal family fortune began to dwindle, the branches of the family tree received quite a shaking when Dan’s father took a job with the State at the Department of Highways. Dan’s father is killed in a construction accident; his mother has a nervous breakdown and ends up marrying her French therapist and moving overseas; and young Dan is sent to live with his grandfather. And there he stays, firmly cemented in Lynchburg, Virginia—a “Deal of Virginia. This is where his blood is.”

Booth’s writing flexes its satirical muscles best when he describes the illusive importance of an undefined code of behavior by which Dan Deal must live his life. In other words, Deal is a prig. A smug, self-satisfied elitist who considers himself an “impoverished aristocrat.”

By American standards, Dan was quite well off; well-to-do might be aptly descriptive. In his own mind, however, Dan was an impoverished aristocrat, one forced to suffer through life with little more than a fine home in a superior neighborhood to live in, excellent clothing to wear, and one of the cheaper Porsches to drive.

How much of this is fiction and how much of it is the New South? Today’s South is suffering an identity crisis. Jim Booth’s The New Southern Gentleman takes the cultural confusion, the anachronism that is the New South, and, with tongue firmly in cheek, describes the region’s dwindling pseudo-aristocratic heritage and exposes it—revealing an underlying misperception of its own good intentions and high sense of moral purpose. Arbitrary class distinctions exist in all regions, it’s not especially a northern or southern peculiarity. Deal must struggle within the confines of the New Southern Aristocracy, where the class lines remain as constant as they were as far back as the pre-Civil War South, but where bloodlines take a back seat to the insidious, underlying biases created by wealth and property.

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