A Golden Ticket to Prosperity in “The Fortunate Ones”

Ed Tarkington’s new coming-of-age novel The Fortunate Ones points out the chinks in the gilded armor adorning – and weighing down – followers of the cult of wealth.

Set mainly in Tennessee, The Fortunate Ones follows Charlie Boykin. His boyhood in East Nashville’s Montague Village Apartments and in the care of his mother Bonnie would’ve proven serviceable were it not for his being on the receiving end of regular bullying and hospital bills. Taking matters into her own hands, Bonnie relocates Charlie to the elite realm of “pomp and circumstance” that is Belle Meade. A place where folks like Archer Creigh — whom Charlie befriends at the private Yeatman School — are groomed to boast sound appearances and “a sense of certitude so strong it spilled onto everyone around [them].”

From the 1980s to post-9/11 America, Charlie goes through the motions of his newfound world, from Yeatman’s “hypermasculine traditions and persistent whiff of testosterone” to the Belle Meade houses’ uptight airs and family photo-laden quarters. Charlie tries not only to keep up in a society that feels “at once so close and so distant,” but also to find and nurture his inner self after a childhood of hardships. Easier said than done when one tries mending mental wounds by clinging to well-meaning but flawed role models like Archer, whose growing ego and reactionism gradually blind him to the consequences of realizing his personal ambitions at the expense of his relationships in life — a life also cushioned by Ford F-150s and “Brooks Brothers suits and ties.”

And what a lavish cushion the haut monde makes for at first glance. Houses “too grand to be called such” — like Colonial-style manses and “stucco manor [homes]” — loom over those driving along Belle Meade Boulevard. At every turn – turns that further remove Charlie from his former life, including his aunt Sunny and childhood friend Terrence — the upper-class way of life seems to offer a golden ticket to prosperity.

It’s one thing to shine on the outside by being wealthy, charismatic, and “trusted to lead, or to govern,” but entirely another to shine from within, making the characters’ inner worlds all the more revealing once Tarkington casts a light on the darkness within. Archer divulges to Charlie his complicated feelings for his late father to justify his ambition for sociopolitical acclaim as well as his increasing clinginess to those close to him to keep his “love of being loved” afloat. Archer’s childhood sweetheart Vanessa Haltom reveals her pregnancy and desire to get an abortion to avoid being ostracized by the elite. Just as golden skin suffocation sapped the life out of Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, the “idiosyncrasies and traditions” making up Belle Meade’s aura in its environment of fizzy libations and fussy “Belle Meade grand dames” leave no room for the characters’ true selves to breathe.

Not that the characters don’t try to seek their own happiness beyond Belle Meade’s confines, if half-heartedly and dubiously in most cases. Archer runs for mayoral office under the pretense of shoring up lower classes and preserving the spirit of Nashville — i.e. “holding on to the past” and shunning change that threatens the elite’s way of life — via mudslinging and dirt-digging meant to subdue “liberal Trojan [horses].” As for Charlie, he tries to find his true self via his friendship with his art teacher Ms. Whitten and the love of painting he develops to capture the truth — both ugly and beautiful — about human nature underneath the blur of a fast-paced society focused on wealth, status, and achievement.

But like Charlie himself, Tarkington can have trouble slowing down to flesh out the upper-class world’s hubris in detail, with frequent time gaps between chapters that span weeks and even years, like Charlie’s decade-long stay in Mexico before returning to Nashville. As the novel introduces more figures (e.g. political campaign intern Marcus Hughes, the Pancho-Murray couple hosting Charlie in Mexico) who only get one or two scenes that don’t provide substantial room for character growth, The Fortunate Ones can feel like it’s reflecting elite society’s breakneck pace — making characters, events, and settings blur together.

Perhaps Tarkington meant to magnify the “you’re either growing [swiftly] or you’re dying” mentality that steers the book’s characters, as with political operator Nick Averett’s acquisition of racy footage outing Archer, whose refusal “to grieve or worry or look for someone to blame” for his woes grows as he darts further along the road to electoral victory. As if slowing down to reflect upon one’s actions is akin to going belly up like a motionless shark.

Unvarnished in its look at a society that pours as much pressure onto people as it does spectacle and riches, The Fortunate Ones is a moving exposé — in the same vein as The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations — of how gilded appearances can siphon the luster from one’s innermost self and pressure individuals into keeping up with the breakneck cycle of monetary gain — and spiritual loss. Perhaps what the fortunate ones ought to do isn’t merely accrue fortunes, but amass riches of character in integrity, humility, and generosity. S. Truett Cathy said it best: “It’s OK to have wealth. But keep it in your hands, not in your heart.”

The Fortunate Ones
By Ed Tarkington
Algonquin Books
Published January 5, 2021