Too Sweet to Be Sour: On Inman Majors’s “Penelope Lemon: Game On!”

By Robert StubblefieldMay 17, 2019

Too Sweet to Be Sour: On Inman Majors’s “Penelope Lemon: Game On!”

Penelope Lemon: Game On! by Inman Majors

HUMOR WRITERS ARE required to accomplish the exceedingly difficult while making it appear effortless. Like a basket catch in centerfield or a sky hook from the baseline, the wires cannot be visible and the potential for error and embarrassment is vast. The challenge may be all the greater these days. Irony and detachment are highly valued, while gentle humor, sincerity, and engagement are less so. And yet, in his fifth novel, Penelope Lemon: Game On!, Inman Majors proves one can still pull off the old trick. That’s a pleasure to witness.

Penelope Lemon is a heroine for our age. Whether attempting to negotiate a complicated digital environment or encouraging son Theo to stand up against bullying, Penelope confronts each obstacle like the MacGyver of the self-help genre.

She quickly realizes the perfectly sensible advice dispensed with bemusement, condescension, and concern by her friends Rachel and Sandy is as impractical as an imagined dalliance with Enrique, who graces the cover of the romance novel she has recently consumed, The Tycoon’s Dare. If Penelope were to follow Rachel and Sandy’s advice, she might save herself some trouble, but, fortunately for the reader, that is not the path she forges into her late-Friday afternoon buzz. Compelling comic fiction — or fiction of any sort — is seldom predicated upon the making of solid and defensible decisions.

Majors begins the novel with Penelope on a precipice — just past 40 and perhaps ready to admit, if not quite resigned to, the fact that her future consists of lonely, interminable weekends (with son Theo at his father’s) and waiting tables in a theme restaurant (the name and theme too golden to give away here) during the week.

But then Penelope encounters a new friend, and eventual partner-in-crime, during her obligatory attendance of Theo’s baseball games. Penelope and Missy share a fondness for The Tycoon’s Dare and a predilection, perhaps even preference, for awkward predicaments. Penelope is never more her intelligent, insightful, empathetic, and, above all, funny self than when exchanging single-mom credentials with Missy. Facades fall, and honest admissions seal the bond.

With an impending visit from Aunt June and Uncle Doozy (and Uncle Doozy is indeed a doozy) on the horizon, Penelope’s clock accelerates:

She visualized the three of them — Aunt June, Doozy, and herself — cohabitating in the basement, the snoring and the sleepwalking and the commands to keep the line moving. Then she realized that not only would they be sharing a sleeping area but also the lone bathroom. The RV toilet shared with Uncle Doozy was a memory she’d suppressed until now.

Whatever momentary complacency Penelope is experiencing evaporates. Armed with a handful of hard-earned wrestling tricks, a balky car with a perpetually glowing oil light, and powered by a Van Halen soundtrack, Penelope is off and negotiating a complicated maze including a Christian-bro hybrid lawn party, an inadvertent double-date, and a triangular parent-teacher conference, all of which serve to distract her from a desperate and sincere search for employment, and a tentative, somewhat lackadaisical quest for romance, companionship, or even amusing and semi-intelligent correspondence.

We all need a reminder that school will eventually let out for the summer, that kind words or good deeds occasionally arrive from unanticipated sources. Hunky, disingenuous Christians and peanut-chucking softball families aside, people are mostly amusing, well intentioned, contradictory, complex, and interesting and funny. Penelope illustrates that our needs do not require divine intervention and are not determined by the conventions of suburbia, and that sometimes the slightest alteration in trajectory leads not exactly to the fulfillment of dreams, but to greater joy.

Penelope Lemon, the Macho Man Randy Savage–influenced single mom from Hillsboro, Virginia, who employs her wrestling skills both professionally and romantically, and Raymond Love of Love’s Winning Plays, the SEC’s own Lucky Jim, exemplify Majors’s ability to create memorable main characters and protagonists, but he’s equally gifted at constructing indelible minor characters such as Penelope’s “huge huge redneck” (“HHR”).           

“My memory is not what it once was. You know I’m nostalgic.”

This was true. The HHR was nostalgic. He found it impossible to throw out any bong or pipe that had once treated him in a righteous manner and kept his former companions scattered about the apartment like decorative lamps he never turned on. He also had a whole shed full of antiquated leaf blowers that he’d spent many an enjoyable afternoon with, including his first one, which he’d named Calypso.

Majors’s characters are real and rounded, their eccentricities earned, owned, and sufficiently peculiar to burst the cramped confines of stereotype or caricature. He gives the reader enough to construct their pasts and futures, and even though we might be laughing out loud, we understand that their oddball methods of negotiating the world have a source every bit as nuanced and complicated as Penelope’s, or indeed, as our own. George, Penelope’s steadfast stepfather, Uncle Doozy, and even Dimwit, the elderly trailer-park denizen: each possesses agency and commands attention in the novelscape. All these can be likened to box graters, with their rough and irregular exteriors shaving the world into manageable shapes and pieces — and they are smoother on the interior than might be readily apparent.

As with all of us, Penelope and son Theo’s plans and progress are equally complicated by friend, foe, parent, relative, and acquaintance alike to the point that Penelope questions her place in Hillsboro’s social strata: “Recalling all this, Penelope spent a moment wondering if she was really meant for life in the middle class.”

Although it’s probably not the place of this reviewer to judge Majors’s success in employing the limited-omniscient third-person point of view of a female protagonist, I find Penelope convincing, engaging, and altogether entertaining. Timing is everything, and in Penelope Lemon Majors is economical and precise and avoids the risk of running the same gag for a few too many frames. He also deftly addresses technology. Frequently, in today’s fiction, the digital world is either dutifully — even grudgingly — acknowledged, or, worse yet, inserted in contrived and contorted fashion. Smartphones, video games, and dating apps appear throughout Penelope Lemon, but they neither dominate nor distract. Facebook profiles and updates factor into the plot, but depending on the correspondent, useful or alarming information is just as likely conveyed on Hillsboro Garden Club stationery as via email or text. Phones and iPads are implements rather than deities.

Readers could do worse than to employ Penelope Lemon as a life coach: “With few exceptions, the less you thought about bad stuff, the less bad it got. It was Psychology 101.” A writer successful in the long game establishes, explores, and eventually defines a territory. Penelope Lemon: Game On! is a stellar addition to Inman Majors’s growing body of Southern comic novels and contains and concentrates their best elements.


Robert Stubblefield has published fiction and personal essays in Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West, Best Stories of the American West, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Recent work appears in basalt, High Desert Journal, and Southern Humanities Review.

LARB Contributor

Robert Stubblefield has published fiction and personal essays in Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West, Best Stories of the American West, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Recent work appears in basalt, High Desert Journal, and Southern Humanities Review. Awards include a Georges and Anne Borchardt scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Fishtrap Fellowship, and Imhaha Writers’ Retreat Fellowship. Robert grew up in eastern Oregon and now lives in Missoula, Montana, and teaches at the University of Montana.


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