'Captain Saturday" is about a man who loses his career, his friends, his wife, his home, and his son. It's a comedy of biblical proportions: Job Lite.
Robert Inman's wonderful new novel opens with a scene of suburban bliss molded out of glazed marzipan. Will Baggett is the most popular celebrity in Raleigh, N.C. For 20 years, he's served as the weatherman on Channel 7, raising the station to first place with his indefatigable friendliness. Every strip mall opens with his salute, every garden club welcomes his wisdom, every passerby greets him: "Yo, Will! What's the weather?"
For Will Baggett, there's not a cloud in the sky. His pretty wife is fast becoming the area's most successful real estate agent, and his handsome son is starting medical school. He's the center of the city's lovefest, a man who turns in every night astonished at his own happiness.
No meteorologist could spot the cold front approaching, and, besides, as Will readily confesses, he never studied meteorology. (He started literally over a dead man's body, stepping from behind a camera when the real weatherman expired on the air.) But trouble erupts with the sale of Channel 7. A media conglomerate in Chicago loads the station with debt and embarks on a series of cost-cutting measures that begins with Will's job.
Disruptive as that is, it turns out to be just the first drop in a storm of problems that rain down on Will. Rushing to meet his severance-package deadline, he runs a red light, resists arrest, and injures his knee, landing in the hospital and on the front page of the newspaper. "In the space of 48 hours, Will had gone from revered celebrity to criminal laughingstock.... He had lost his dignity, had taken a giant gimp-legged leap into rank foolishness."
Inman is a witty, utterly charming storyteller, who portrays the human comedy with a full appreciation for its tenderness and pain. Every time Will hits rock bottom, the floor gives way in another collapse. You can't laugh without wincing. At traffic court, on the cusp of acquittal, the bailiff discovers a bag of marijuana in the jacket Will borrowed from his son. Whoosh - down he plunges again!
This professional crisis finally ignites the explosive tensions building up at home. For 25 years, his wife has endured the humiliation of his desperate friendliness; she has no intention of traipsing along behind his new public ignominy.
Abandoned by everyone but his chameleon-like lawyer, Will sits on an ash heap until his backwoods cousin comes to collect him and return him to "Brunswick County, on the peaceful banks of the Cape Fear River, [where] he might be able to put body and soul back together and figure out how he was going to get his life back."
But that reconstruction proves far tougher than he anticipates. As the story loops back to his childhood, we discover an earlier period of extraordinary loss, when he was raised by a grief-stricken cousin who insisted that he abandon the memory of his parents.
How carefully, how tenderly Inman follows the threads of these people's lives, recording the old tension between love and pride that keeps them tied to the past. These poignant scenes illustrate the genesis of Will's complex personality - so hungry to woo everyone but those closest to him.
Inman's books have been bottled up in the genre of Southern literature long enough. This one deserves a wider audience. Yes, "Captain Saturday" captures the changing culture and economy of the South beautifully, but its real region is the human heart. If it's a "Southern" novel, it's Southern in the best sense: It takes its sweet time. It's a novel that isn't afraid to rest in amused contemplation of Will's predicament.
Stripped of the only identity he ever knew, the way back home is arduous; as always, reclaiming the Garden of Eden involves mowing a lot of grass. Will realizes that he had gradually lost what mattered most before he suddenly lost everything else.
But if this is the tale of a desperate man, it's not a tale of a despairing man. "On the surface, everything is gone," Will thinks at one of his many low points, "but if everything is gone, anything is possible."
"Captain Saturday" is a book full of hard-won hope, a celebration of the power of renewal, and some wise advice about how to live well in any weather.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to email@example.com.