In the spirit of full disclosure it must be mentioned that John Jeter is the owner of The Handlebar, a Greenville, South Carolina club where I've enjoyed shows by Drive By Truckers, Robyn Hitchcock, The Avett Brothers, and more. So I was already favorably disposed towards Jeter when I sat down to read his novel The Plunder Room, a story of fathers, sons, music, war, and a strange new kind of peace.
For me the problem with so much Southern fiction is twofold. Southern novels tend to be backward-looking, concerned with things of the past rather than what's happening now. A huge generalization? Maybe, but of course if a general burned a swath through your backyard you might have a hard time getting past it. What really grates about so many Southern novels is the self-conscious eccentricity, characters with goofy names and frilly book titles like The Adventures of the Piccadilly Choctaw Pecan Tree Book Club and Marching Band or something like that. (I just made that up but it does have a ring to it. Hmmm....)
The Plunder Room clears the first hurdle and completely avoids the second. It's a modern novel that just happens to be set in the South; it's concerns feel so personal and urgent that there's no room for silliness. Randol Duncan is a professional blogger who lives on the South Carolina property of his war hero grandfather, who dies as the book opens. The most important gift Randol receives from his grandfather is the key to "The Plunder Room," a locked room full of items that Grandpa collected during his military career. Getting into the Plunder Room isn't as easy as it sounds though, since Randol has been left paraplegic after his accident and has no easy means of getting up the stairs.
Jeter has more on his mind than militaristic Southern tradition though, since Randol's dissolute father Jupe is obviously more than the small business owner he appears to be and his half brother Jerod is tight-lipped about his life and the beautiful woman named Annie he shows up with on the day after his grandfather's funeral. A couple of things about Annie: she claims to be from New York and to want a teaching job in the South Carolina school system (that alone should be enough to cause suspicion) and her beauty causes every man who sees her to start quivering. Annie is the book's biggest problem; she's in the book for one reason, so the Duncan boys can uncover the truth about their father and get on with their lives. The reveal of Annie's mischief is a little fuzzy, and her methods (a child pornography website) take The Plunder Room in a direction it doesn't have time to explore.
The Plunder Room isn't a mystery though. The heart of the book is Randol's relationship with his son Eddie, a good-hearted if slightly clueless teen with a fondness for hard rock and a fear asking pretty girls out on a date. Randol is trying to teach his son the precepts of manhood. "....we are all supposed to grow, not just as people, as boys grow to men, but from one generation to the next," Jeter writes. Whether Southern fiction is your glass of lemonade or not, aren't those words what life is all about? The Plunder Room is an offbeat winner, an original offering from an new author who deserves your attention.