The South may rise again, but Randol Duncan—the acrid main character of The Plunder Room (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009)—will not. Randol narrates his tale from the confines of his wheelchair, a rare paraplegic hero fashioned, in many ways, in the image of his maker.
Author John Jeter, best known as the co-owner of Greenville, S.C.‘s The Handlebar is also a music buff and journalist by trade (like Randol), as well as a kidney transplant recipient. “I know what it’s like to be in incredible pain,” he relates. “I know what it’s like to be in a wheel chair.”
But Jeter (who, with 20 years of fiction writing under his belt, finally sold The Plunder Room, his debut novel) actually chose a wheelchair-bound character as a literary tool. “There had to be a device where it was hard to get Randol up the stairs,” he reveals.
Thus begins the premise of Plunder: Randol’s Grandfather issues a deathbed wish that Randol unlock the door to the second-floor Plunder Room—the place Grandfather kept war booty from his heroic turn in WWII – and care-take the Duncan family legacy.
What lies between Randol and the mysterious room is far more daunting than a flight of stairs: There’s Randol’s ne’er-do- well father (who Randol once rescued from a drug-related sentence in a Honduran prison), con-artist brother (described as “the only man in the world who doesn’t realize, doesn’t understand, simply doesn’t get, that Lady Luck has always been accessible to him like a booty call, a one-night stand whenever he feels he needs her”) and angsty teen-aged son. None of the other Duncan men care about the family history, a fact that irritates Randol as much as it does Jeter.
“I decided I was pissed off about how we got from my grandfather’s generation and all the real American values he stood for—that generation fought a noble war—to the generation of George Bush,” the author says. “This book takes a look at the progression of the American character; how you get from gallantry and honor to greed.”
Jeter describes Plunder as “a Southern-fried allegory;” the term “plunder room” a metaphor for contemporary America. “We’re living in it,” he says. “This whole country has been plundered.” But the locked room is also a very literal manifestation of Jeter’s own family legacy. A war-hero grandfather left the author an inheritance of documents and photo negatives, which inform the novel.
Plunder‘s plot is akin to a series of unfortunate events. As Randol attempts to access the upstairs room, a colorful cast bars his path. There’s Annie whose ethereal beauty is marred only by her dark past; Volusia, the strong-arm housekeeper with an ever-present bar of soap to punish potty-mouths; and Oliver Duncan Barrows, a mysterious stranger with a link to Randol’s grandfather.
The book builds on the unknown with all the suspense of a whodunit, but a reader expecting pulp crime should stick to Tom Clancy. Plunder‘s riveting conclusion asks as many questions as it answers, drawing no easy conclusions. This is a character-driven literary work, a return to an age of storytelling in the vein of fellow Southerner Walker Percy.
But as much as Plunder seeks answers to where it all went wrong—where the Greatest Generation gave way to the Me Generation; where the Old South of roots and customs was defeated by a newer South with a shorter memory—the novel also revels in its own telling. Jeter’s sharp humor shines through in Randol’s biting wit: “My editor, whom I’ve never met and who could actually be a microchip somewhere, thinks I have been reborn into someone who cares,” the narrator imparts.
And, even as Plunder fathoms the weighty matters of family ties, birthright and honor, its light moments are as frequent as they are poignant. “What do real men do when they don’t know what to say?” Randol poses after a trying event. “We eat.”
who: John Jeter
what: Book launch for The Plunder Room
when and where: Hub-Bub Showroom, The Handlebar, The Fiction Addiction and Malaprop’s. Hub-Bub, 149 S. Daniel Morgan Ave., Spartanburg, S.C. on Thursday, Jan. 22 (6 p.m. Info: 864-582-0056). The Handlebar, 304 E. Stone Ave., Greenville, S.C. on Friday, Jan. 23—with special guests Taylor Moore Trio (6:30 p.m. Info: 864-233-6173) The Fiction Addiction, 3795 E. North St., Greenville, S.C. on Saturday, Jan. 24 (2-4 p.m. Info: 864-609-9394. Malaprop’s on Friday, Feb. 20 (7 p.m. Info: 254-6734)