Midway upon life’s journey, the hero of Inman Majors’s new comic novel, Penelope Lemon: Game On!, finds herself at an impasse. Her second marriage has ended; her son is being targeted by bullies; she lives in her parents’ basement and waits tables at an ersatz frontier roadhouse called Coonskins. Penelope allows herself a brief look backward to see where everything went wrong. Why hadn’t she finished college or pursued a career? “She’d just gotten too complacent,” she realizes. So, as the title suggests, she decides to take action. Let the games begin.
Majors, a Knoxville native who attended Vanderbilt, pays homage here to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves. He continually tosses his protagonist into overlapping muddles, where her problems compound until, through grit and guile, she finally devises solutions. She is aided by an amusing cast of oddballs from her Virginia hometown, including her first husband, “a huge, huge redneck” (or “the HHR”), a double modifier that’s necessary to distinguish him from the rest of the locals: “Basically, if you were from Hillsboro, Virginia, and weren’t a doctor or lawyer’s kid, you likely had a bit of red about the neck, no matter how well you did in school,” she says.
To motivate her son, Theo, to stand up to his tormentors, Penelope invokes the words of her pro-wrestling hero, Macho Man Randy Savage: “The tower of power, too sweet to be sour, ohhh yeah!” But perhaps the sentiment goes to her head: when she’s taunted by customers at Coonskins, she pins a soccer mom to the floor and pelts her with peanuts. Penelope knows she will get fired, but no matter. Another job soon appears, one slightly more likely to provide the means to escape her parents’ house-a prospect that becomes more urgent when Penelope discovers her mother and stepfather enjoying an amorous resurgence with the aid of Internet smut and herbological male enhancement. The faster Penelope can skedaddle, the better.
Her own amorous life must now take place in an era when romance has been outsourced to technology: “Every single dating app should be named Booty Call,” one friend tells her. Penelope’s tentative forays into cyber-romance draw admirers who are comically ill-suited for her. From Divote, an app “For Modern Christians on the Go,” Penelope attracts the attentions of BrettCorinthians2:2, whose shirtless profile pic looks like Samson but who in person behaves like a garden-variety Philistine. LoveSync matches her with Fitzwilliam, a poetry-quoting gentleman who comes across as a cardigan-wearing toff.
Majors cleverly deploys artifacts from the 1980s and ’90s to flesh out his heroine. A “closet metal-head” with the Nirvana memorabilia to prove it, Penelope connects with a fellow single mother when she sees her wearing a Van Halen T-shirt. The Van Halen motif acquires added significance when Penelope discovers that her ex-husband, James, has listed 1984 as a favorite album, a suspicious choice given James’s well-documented ambivalence about Van Halen. Reading the track listings for 1984, particularly side two’s “Hot for Teacher,” solves the mystery: “There it was, as plain as the bulge in David Lee Roth’s tights,” Penelope concludes. “James was dating a teacher.”
Poor James—Majors makes much comedic sport of the ex-husband’s taste for Scottish kilts and cowboy garb. Penelope fell in love with his nebbish iconoclasm, but over time his turn-ons (Teddy Roosevelt biographies, the theme from Shaft) started to turn her decisively off. The straw that broke the back of her libido was James’s yellow kimono robe, “a short little matronly number that came just to his knees.” In response to his erotic overtures one morning, she reaches “her Rubicon”—”She could be frisky in the morning, or he could wear the kimono, but never again would both occur simultaneously.”
As Penelope extricates herself from the morass of her life, not every choice she makes is a good one, a narrative decision for which readers will be grateful: wise choices don’t make good comedy. Penelope Lemon: Game On! moves at a zany, Wodehousian clip, the entertaining set pieces interspersed with zippy dialogue. Hardly a single a sentence in the voice of Penelope’s friend Missy is quotable in a family venue.
It’s a short novel, saucy and profane and funny on every page. Majors, who is already working on a sequel, knows that comedy relies on the accumulation of absurd obstacles facing his protagonist. Just when you think her life couldn’t get any worse, another problem arises. Bertram Wooster has Jeeves by his side, but Penelope has only her own wits to guide her. Still, she proves to have all the mettle she needs to make it on her own. Onward, Penelope.
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches in Nashville.