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All Aboard the Crazy Train

Penelope Lemon returns in Operation Dimwit

When last we saw our heroine, at the end of Inman Majors’ Penelope Lemon: Game On!, life had finally become manageable. With a steady job keeping creditors at bay and her son no longer being bullied on the bus, Penelope moved out of her parents’ basement, ready for her next phase. In the sequel, Operation Dimwit, Penelope sends son Theo to summer camp, giving her two weeks of freedom and relaxation. But before she can sink into her couch to enjoy wine and classic rock, she will have to stare down a suspicious cat, trap a trained skunk, and resist the intimidations of a weirdly competitive gym trainer named Megan.

Photo: Tess Majors

Kerfuffles and shenanigans are Majors’ specialties. No sooner does Penelope extricate herself from one zany mix-up than she lands in another, her resourcefulness tested at every turn. When less intrepid women would lose their cool, Penelope is at her finest. Does she always tell the truth? No. Does her mouth write checks that her butt can’t cash? Naturally. Does she know how to operate a bidet? Please. Her heart, though, is pure, her volition, undaunted. Readers learn to smile when Penelope lands in a maze of trying circumstances, confident that she will Lemon her way out of trouble.

Operation Dimwit includes long set pieces, offering Majors opportunities to plumb his protagonist’s mind. When Penelope leaves her ex-urban Virginia home to go on a date with Fitzwilliam Darcy, her LoveSync match from the earlier novel, she has no idea what to expect. Fitzwilliam speaks like an Edwardian dandy (“tut-tut,” he says, later apologizing for “a bit of fanfaronade”), names his estate Pemberley, and calls his cat Algernon Moncrief, Oscar Wilde’s famously gay-coded gentleman. One expects cucumber sandwiches and an invalid friend named Bunbury.

On the other side of the ledger, Fitzwilliam decorates his home with tasteful paintings of nude women in languid poses. Penelope wonders if they are trophies of recent conquests and if he intends to train his seductive powers on her.

Majors, who grew up in Knoxville and received his B.A. from Vanderbilt, employs a close third-person narration that enables him to borrow from Penelope’s colloquial voice, a style that adds humor and authenticity. The Hillsboro UPS shop “truly rocked,” whereas the song “Footloose” “bit the big one.” When Penelope faces critical decisions — whether to seek new employment or to sleep with Fitzwilliam — readers are privy to the contours of her thoughts. 

The novel’s central conflict, and much of its flavor, comes from Penelope’s boss Missy, who wants to move the Rolling Acres Estates trailer park to a bigger lot but is locked into a contract with a man named Dewitt. Worse, Dewitt’s contract stipulates that he have free access to the Rolling Acres office bathroom, a license he exercises daily, to the women’s disgust. “Operation Dimwit” is Missy’s plan to get dirt on the trailer park “whacker” and thereby force him to nullify the contract.

Feisty, unselfconscious, and impulsive, Missy is a brilliant comic invention, on par with another Majors character, Coach Woody from Love’s Winning Plays. She inundates Penelope with details about her love life and spins wild theories regarding Dimwit’s hidden perversions. Her machine-gun wit is perfect for the medium of texting. “I tell you Dimwit has trained skunks guarding his place,” Missy reports from recon in the woods. “It’s like the Island of Dr. Moreau. They may be his own offspring.” “It’s like my entire face is a skunk’s butt,” Missy texts later. “Like where my nose should be is just straight ass.”

Penelope herself gets the novel’s best lines. One can’t help but detect the author’s own opinions seeping into the voice of his beloved creation. Readers should keep a notebook called “Penelope Lemon Speaks Her Mind,” divided into sections by topic:

On the boredom of “educational” podcasts: “Who gave a rat’s ass about that Dutch man and his long-lost identical twin, separated by two continents, a language barrier, and fighting on opposite sides of a war?”

On contemporary pop music: “How she could be raising a child with such bad musical taste, she had no idea. But there it was: Imagine Dragons.”

On her ex-husband’s downstairs manscaping: “after slashing away with razor, scissors, and possibly tweezers, it looked exactly like a pink salamander recently startled from the deepest underbrush.”

Operation Dimwit arrives propitiously at a time when we need sources of light. Penelope Lemon can’t stave off infection, but she can remind us why it’s important to persevere. One of these days, we are going to outsmart that skunk, wash off its residual odor, and turn up Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” to full volume. Rock on, Penelope.

All Aboard the Crazy Train

Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches English at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.