March 16, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
THE FIERY PANTHEON
Scribner, 1998, $22.00.
Nancy Lemann's novel that celebrates the eccentricities of the well-to-do with nothing better to do than cultivate their unique quirks and travel in style is reminiscent of Voltaire's CANDIDE. The characters tour the world, but find what they are looking for in their own lush, tropical and "sleazy" garden, their hometown of New Orleans.
The tour begins in Virginia at a beautiful but boring old resort hotel in the mountains, possibly inspired by the famous Greenbriar. Mr. and Mrs. Stewart and their daughter Grace are there to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Stewarts, the seventieth birthday of Mr. Stewart, and the engagement of Grace to Monroe, who has not arrived. Grace's three brothers are there with their wives and children.
The characters would be at home in a sophisticated madcap comedy from the 1930's. Their signature traits are emphasized and exaggerated until they become caricatures. For example, Mrs. Stewart studied psychology and never got over it. Throughout the novel, she continues to diagnose her family as well as perfect strangers seen from across the room. She tells Grace, "You dress as if you're trying to erase yourself."
Grace's constant efforts to erase herself by looking dowdy never stop. "Grace had always tried to be drab. She felt that she didn't have enough room in her brain or time in her life to spotlight her physical appearance. Less penetrating souls than Walter, the crazed young man in the hall, would not perceive the stalwart effort that had gone into her self-effacement.... The truth was that she would have batted her eyelashes at anything in shoe leather." Grace's efforts at disappearing behind a drab exterior continue, but the purpose of her disguise is never revealed.
Walter is also staying at the fine old hotel, and he is also from New Orleans. He is in the throes of some personal crisis, the origin of which is never made clear. "He was like THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, and then never left, as he had attached himself inexplicably to the old hotel and various guests, notably the Stewarts. They did not know how long he had been there. He could have been born there, for all they knew. He lay supine and gazed at Grace lecherously."
The drama begins with Walter's infatuation with Grace. For the rest of the novel, he circles Grace, and the circling is global. They move from Virginia to New York to the World, ending in New Orleans, only to set forth immediately for Italy. Grace's question at the end of this Grand Tour is "But where is home?" After listing many possibilities from Istanbul to the Mississippi Coast, she determines, "In lieu of home the matter becomes more abstract: Honor is home. Walter was made of that. She never doubted that the Fiery Pantheon would be his permanent address."
Grace's father is the chief god of the Fiery Pantheon, the god of honor. Grace installs the men she meets who measure up to his standard in her private Pantheon, and Walter is finally admitted. "But Mr. Stewart was incorruptible, and meeting with this rarity in the world had caused his daughter to construct the Fiery Pantheon and hold it as a standard. If you held to the standard it was easier to live with yourself, if possibly a bit drab. But it was not drab to Mr. Stewart. The head of white hair belonging to Mr. Stewart could be seen in a black convertible, the preferred car for dashing old men in New Orleans...driving down the Avenue every evening exactly at six-thirty under the sweltering oaks, with opera blaring to the trees. There was an atmosphere to the thing. There was his dream of honor. That was his refuge from the world."
Despite his drabness, Mr. Stewart is the one character in the novel who seems authentic. When his wife tells him that he isn't in touch with his feelings, he replies, "Good. I don't want to be in touch with my feelings." While Mrs. Stewart thinks one should express anger, "Mr. Stewart felt that one should be civil."
In looking into the matter of whom Walter's people are, Mr. Stewart finds that they are "respectable," "not in the 'demimonde.' ...In his world you traveled with aged relatives and steamer trunks and were not in the 'demimonde.'"
After so much honor and Southern eccentricity the demimonde might be a welcome relief. Lemann is witty, inventive, and clever, but all her talent seems somewhat futile in a novel that begins and ends with honor and Southern self-congratulations.