[5 March 2003]
|INTERVIEW WITH JIM BOOTH|
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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.