THE FORTUNATE ONES
When Charlie Boykin was young, he thought his life with his single mother on the working-class side of Nashville was perfectly fine. But when his mother arranges for him to be admitted as a scholarship student to an elite private school, he is suddenly introduced to what the world can feel like to someone cushioned by money. That world, he discovers, is an almost irresistible place where one can bend—and break—rules and still end up untarnished. As he gets drawn into a friendship with a charismatic upperclassman, Archer Creigh, and an affluent family that treats him like an adopted son,
When Charlie Boykin was young, he thought his life with his single mother on the working-class side of Nashville was perfectly fine. But when his mother arranges for him to be admitted as a scholarship student to an elite private school, he is suddenly introduced to what the world can feel like to someone cushioned by money. That world, he discovers, is an almost irresistible place where one can bend—and break—rules and still end up untarnished. As he gets drawn into a friendship with a charismatic upperclassman, Archer Creigh, and an affluent family that treats him like an adopted son, Charlie quickly adapts to life in the upper echelons of Nashville society. Under their charming and alcohol-soaked spell, how can he not relax and enjoy it all—the lack of anxiety over money, the easy summers spent poolside at perfectly appointed mansions, the lavish parties, the freedom to make mistakes knowing that everything can be glossed over or fixed?
But over time, Charlie is increasingly pulled into covering for Archer’s constant deceits and his casual bigotry. At what point will the attraction of wealth and prestige wear off enough for Charlie to take a stand—and will he?
The Fortunate Ones is an immersive, elegantly written story that conveys both the seductiveness of this world and the corruption of the people who see their ascent to the top as their birthright.
- January 2021
- 320 Pages
“Tarkington is a gifted storyteller, largely because he knows how to let his finely developed characters do the heavy lifting . . . An impressive literary balancing act that entertains as it enriches.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Ed Tarkington’s wonderful second novel, The Fortunate Ones, feels like a fresh and remarkably sure-footed take on The Great Gatsby, examining the complex costs of attempting to transcend or exchange your given class for a more gilded one. Tarkington’s understanding of the human heart and mind is deep, wise and uncommonly empathetic. As a novelist, he is the real deal. I can’t wait to see this story reach a wide audience, and to see what he does next.” —Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Love and Ruin
“There’s a sharpness to Ed Tarkington’s view of the world, an exacting truthfulness of how things work, but he marries it to such an open-hearted and resonant humanity in his writing that it’s hard not to place him easily in the company of Pat Conroy and Alice McDermott. In The Fortunate Ones, Tarkington examines privilege and friendship with that same incredible perspective, and he helps us see the difficulties of trying to hold onto yourself even as you want so badly to be transformed. An amazing, thought-provoking novel by one of our most generous writers.” —Kevin Wilson, author of Nothing to See Here
“Ed Tarkington perfectly captures the heady, conflicted emotions that come with proximity to privilege—both the irresistible longing and the heartbreaking disillusionment. I’m recommending The Fortunate Ones to every book club I know.” —Mary Laura Philpott, author of I Miss You When I Blink
“To the great literature of anointment, of the young person plucked from obscurity and given a place at the glittering table, we can now add Ed Tarkington’s lovely novel of a young man mystified by his good fortune until the reasons behind it are revealed and the cost is extracted. A beautiful read.” —Ann Packer, author of The Children’s Crusade
1. How does the prologue of The Fortunate Ones establish Charlie’s character? What is the effect of having Charlie learn the news of Arch’s suicide while delivering notice of a soldier’s death to his parents?
2. Discuss the parallels between Bonnie and Vanessa, particularly in regard to the choices they made when they became pregnant as teenagers.
3. Charlie, Arch, and Terrence all grow up without fathers. What might we infer about the absence of fathers in terms of these characters’ personalities and motivations?
4. Near the end of Part One, Dean Varnadoe cites a Latin aphorism: “Truth is hidden, but nothing is more beautiful than the truth.” Why do you think he says this? What do these words mean to Charlie, and how does their meaning bear out in the second half of the novel?
5. Discuss the novel’s love triangle. What makes the characters love each other? Is their love sincere? Selfish? Self-destructive?
6. Discuss the issue of Archer’s sexuality. Why do you think he marries Vanessa? How might Arch’s life choices have been different had he not chosen to enter politics? What if he had not grown up in a culture built around heteronormative codes of masculinity?
7. Discuss Charlie’s conflicted relationship with his mother. How do you feel about Bonnie as a mother? Is she a bad mother to Charlie, or does Charlie overlook or misunderstand the love she has for him? What does Bonnie do right?
8. Jim plays a significant role in the lives of Charlie, Archer, and Vanessa. How does Jim’s background shape his character? How do Charlie’s, Archer’s, and Vanessa’s respective understandings of him shape their actions and choices?
9. Discuss the role of class in The Fortunate Ones and which characters might be described as lower class, “old money,” and “new money.” What is your definition of “class”? What does the novel suggest about the relationship between wealth and privilege?
10. At Yeatman, Charlie has two influential teachers, Walker Varnadoe and Teddy Whitten. How do these teachers shape Charlie? What qualities or characteristics do they embody?
11. Why do you think Teddy was fired from Yeatman? Do you think Charlie neglected to ask her, that he chose not to say, or that he believed the reason should be understood?
12. Compare the world of San Miguel de Allende to the world from which Charlie has fled. Aside from climate, in what ways are these places different? Why does Charlie choose to return to Nashville?
13. Discuss the role of race in The Fortunate Ones, particularly in regard to Charlie’s relationships with Terrence and Arch. Is Charlie a racist, an opportunist, or both?
14. At the midpoint of the novel, Charlie observes, “We can no more choose to put away the past than we can cease to breathe and go on living.” Near the novel’s conclusion, Jim tells Charlie that “the past is as good as it’s going to get.” Are these ideas contradictory? In what ways might both statements be true?
15. When Arch enters politics, Charlie observes, “There is nothing in this world to which people connect more willingly in uncertain times than the appearance of genuine certainty. If there was one true thing that could be said about Arch, it was this: he seemed so sure of himself that people couldn’t help but believe in him.” How does this observation resonate in our current sociopolitical climate?
16. When Charlie challenges Arch’s decision to run a negative campaign, Arch replies, “I can’t do any good for people if I don’t win.” Do you think this is a valid rationale for moral compromise in politics? At what point do Arch’s negative or dishonest tactics cease to be acceptable? How do you feel about the idea of a “necessary evil”?
17. The prologue and epilogue suggest that the story itself is a form of confession to a priest. Discuss the ways in which the influence of organized religion, Christianity in particular, saturates the novel’s subtext. Is religious faith ultimately a negative or positive force in the lives of the characters?
The Perils of Privilege
An essay by Ed Tarkington
In 2007, I moved to Nashville to take a job teaching English at Montgomery Bell Academy, a prestigious boys’ school with a long history and an alumni database that resembles a who’s who of the city’s social and economic elite. I’d always been drawn to the idea of a boys’ school as depicted in books like A Prayer for Owen Meany and A Separate Peace, and films like Dead Poets Society: idylls of wholesome aspiration and idealism populated with earnest strivers and charismatic teachers. In fact, on the first floor of the building in which I teach is a lecture room named the Dead Poets Society Hall, in honor of the film, which was written by MBA alum Tom Schulman and inspired by his experiences there. I was a high school student myself when I saw that movie. Robin Williams’s performance as the unconventional and inspiring John Keating had, in my eyes at least, done for English teachers what Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones had done for archaeologists. I couldn’t exactly see myself mounting a desk and demanding to be called “O Captain! My Captain!” But I was smitten by the idea of finding purpose through beauty and preaching the power of poetry to bright and eager students, and I remain so to this day.
But there were, and are, parts of the school’s culture and history that give me pause and have cost me sleep. For instance: until recently, outside the school’s library stood a statue of Sam Davis, the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy,” who attended the Western Military Institute, which closed in 1867 and became absorbed into the newly chartered Montgomery Bell Academy. For many years, Sam Davis has been one of Tennessee’s most notorious symbols of the Lost Cause myth. Just this past summer, thanks to the efforts of some of my former students, the school voluntarily removed the statue. It was a decision that to many seemed late in the making but that is representative of the larger cultural challenge we face: separating those parts of our history and tradition worth holding on to from those that contradict our progress toward a fairer, more inclusive future. In this moment of cultural awakening, removing monuments or renaming buildings associated with the more ignoble parts of our history is a small but meaningful gesture. Purging the legacy of what they represent, however, is a more complex problem.
Contradiction and complexity: these are the themes of The Fortunate Ones, a story told by Charlie Boykin, a boy from the less affluent side of Nashville who, in the mid-1980s, finds his way to a school much like Montgomery Bell and befriends an extraordinarily gifted and charismatic son of privilege named Archer Creigh. The novel begins in 2012, when Charlie learns that Arch, now a US senator, has committed suicide. We learn how Charlie came to meet Arch and become absorbed into the world of Nashville’s upper class, a world defined both by tremendous affluence and the perilous tension between noblesse oblige and entitlement.
Through Charlie, we see both the glamorous allure of wealth and the moral rot that can infect even the most noble of the fortunate ones when they are raised to assume that those who have everything can get away with anything. We see in Arch a person who is not good or bad, but good and bad. We see how beauty and power seduces both those who are near it and those who possess it, and how the confidence that comes along with privilege translates into certainty. As Charlie says, “There is nothing in this world to which people connect more willingly in uncertain times than the appearance of genuine certainty. If there was one true thing that could be said about Arch, it was this: he seemed so sure of himself that people couldn’t help but believe in him.”
Much of this novel was inspired by my own conflicted relationship with wealth and my status as a person of limited means working in a school that would not exist but for the support of those whose means seem unlimited. I have taught the sons of billionaires, of senators and congressmen and governors and mayors. Some of them are among the most decent, humble, and hardworking kids I’ve ever known. I’ve also taught even more remarkable boys who grew up in public housing and attended the school on financial aid. I’ve seen those boys embraced by the fortunate ones. I’ve watched them wrestle with the conflict between their gratitude to have been afforded access to opportunity and their understandable insecurity when they first step into a house with an entry hall big enough to swallow their own homes three times over. I’ve seen some slip seamlessly into that world, and others grow resentful. I’ve also seen (as so many of us have) how privilege does not always provide happiness, and how unchecked entitlement can sometimes result in corruption and tragedy. Over and over again, I’ve seen how we are all products of our circumstances, and that we can so often start out with the best intentions and end up very far from where we thought we were headed.
Now more than ever, the world outside of novels is cast in stark shades, free of nuance. People have become so accustomed to one-dimensional portraits of those with whom they differ or who come from a place unrecognizable to them that we seem to have given up on even trying to understand one another. This is why stories matter. A novel is a mirror we hold up to see ourselves more clearly, to understand the complexity of human character. With The Fortunate Ones, I wanted to write a book that shows both sides of our fractured country in three dimensions, so that we can more completely see both ourselves and those whose lives seem vastly different.
But most of all, I wanted to tell a good story. Faulkner once said that “there is nothing worth writing about but love, money, and death.” I took those words seriously when I wrote The Fortunate Ones. I hope you enjoy it; my heart is on every page.