It is sometimes said of the son of a rich man, "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."
"Tycoon," Terry Pringle's third novel, is narrated by William C. Brewster III, a rich boy who is content to stay on third all his life, commenting on the foibles and difficulties of those at bat.
The setting for Pringle's novel is Abilene, Tex., a small city in west Texas dominated by money, oil and religion. The Brewster family is well established in Abilene, high up in the social ranking, having made its money early in oil, and having managed to hang on to that fortune. It took grit and daring for Boomer, Billy's grandfather, to prevail as an early wildcatter. It took savvy and determination for Billy's father to build an oil-exploration business that survives the cycle of good and bad times characteristic of the oil business.
"The stories the two men told were as different as they were. Boomer would tell me about the time he'd rented a pool table to sleep on in Beaumont, with every room, cot and barber chair already taken . . . only to awaken the next morning to learn his boots had been stolen right off his feet. My old man would counter with a story about the time he'd plugged a well with drilling mud all by himself, carrying it in five-gallon buckets by hand from the mud pit, a process which had taken a week."
But for Billy to excel--that would take desire, and the only thing Billy Brewster exhibits much desire for in the whole novel is another chance to go to bed with his childhood sweetheart, Sally Ann. Early on, he explains, "Half the time we were good friends, half the time lovers, and she could behave so unpredictably she normally was driving me crazy. Her reasoning always was, 'I'm trying to keep things interesting.' " She refuses to marry him because it would ruin their good thing.
Sally Ann is beautiful, rich, and wild (for Abilene), a male fantasy come true--she is always seductive, always elusive, and nearly always willing.
Enter Stanley Gaines, the son of a poor widow with a bad reputation. He is gawky, badly dressed and from the wrong side of town. As a boy, he was the butt of jokes, and Billy witnessed Stan urinating on his tormentors. As a man, Stan Gaines has a shameless aggression that will get him what he wants. And what he wants is essentially to be what Billy Brewster is--socially accepted, rich and secure. With Billy's help, he gets a job with Brewster Drilling, persuades a stubborn landowner to permit drilling on her property, and his career is off the ground. With no background, knowledge or training, Stanley Gaines is an oil tycoon in the making.
It is through Gaines' career in oil and real estate that Pringle narrates the economic history of Texas from 1965 to the 1980s. With no capital and nothing but "his best Dale Carnegie manner," Stan Gaines succeeds. He impresses Billy's father, who has been looking for a spark from his own son and never finds it.
Stan becomes a partner in Brewster Drilling and founds Gaines Petroleum. He expands into real estate. He moves to Dallas, where all good media-Tex tycoons go to show off. (In the TV series "Dallas," Texas is not portrayed, but rather the mythical land of Media-Tex.) And, eventually, Gaines goes bankrupt, the latest plot twist in tales of the Texas rich.
Although the economic drama takes up much of the energy of the novel, the only Gaines victory that stirs the narrator is Stan's wooing and winning of Sally Ann. The play of the poor man against the rich man is complete.
Gaines seems to be taking Billy Brewster's place everywhere--in his father's affection, in business, in love. Lucky Billy, born with everything, ends up with some money, a son he loves in a grudging way and a wife he despises. He narrates what should be a story of a triangle of frustration and failure--each man keeping what the other really wants.
Unfortunately, Pringle's gifts as a writer do not live up to his ambition. The loping, good-humored tone of the narrative is without variety, so that when Brewster comes back from Vietnam, finally angry about something, he sounds like an article from Time magazine. He professes to love his son, but the love never is convincing in action. He professes to be obsessed with finding out the secret of Stan Gaines' past, but the secrets turn out to be not so much and not so interesting.