The essential conflict is between guts and manipulation. Do you throw yourself into life with courage? Are you willing to risk everything? Or to you try to play it safe? Do you avoid head-on fights? Do you try to get what you want by cheating and manipulating people?
1920s. Kentucky, etc.
The Patriarch has guts. He’s a risk-taker. A visionary. An entrepreneur.
He can afford to be because his dad, essentially, owned the county. He’s the son of a rich banker. He was raised to take risks. What’s the worst that could happen? You die. There are worse things than being dead.
He marries Zelda, who is highly appealing in the babe department. Zelda made herself appealing. She snagged him as a result of a long, drawn out, highly complicated strategic campaign. She’s not a lady. She comes from semi-decent people: a rakehell county Sherriff with a suffering “Whatever you say dear” shmoo of a wife. She takes after her daddy – his wild streak. She wants to rise above her background. She wants the good stuff.
His wife, Zelda, is a con-artist.
A manic money maker with visionary ideas and unstoppable energy. To Zelda, the Patriarch is her ticket to a high class life. She figures life owes it to her. She loves him on some level; but there’s an element of insincerity because she’s using him. This insincerity, at a very sordid level, includes the fact that she’s highly oversexed. She is not, at her core, a lady.
The Patriarch and Zelda marry. They have three children:
1932. The Patriarch’s fearlessness gets him killed in an oil well explosion. Carl and Zoe are still toddlers. Francis is the only child who remembers his father.
Zelda is bitter. Life has cheated her of the golden ticket. Life fucked with her carefully made plan.
Zelda may be bitter, but she’s a fierce realist. To survive, she goes into the hotel business. Instead of being a genteel lady, she has to root and grub for money. She has to kiss ass and please people. Be a servant. The destiny she tried to escape. She immediately begins looking for a replacement Money Man.
Along the way she also has to raise her three kids.
Francis takes after his Daddy. Francis is a risk-taker. He jumps into fights.
Carl and Zoe try to play it safe. They avoid fights.
Francis stands up for his brother and sister against Zelda’s emotional bullshit. If she’s an emotional H-bomb, he’s their emotional fallout shelter.
Mommy Zelda neglects her kids. She’s either worried about business or looking for a man. She lets the black servants raise them. Either them, or Hollywood. Whenever Zelda can, she dumps the kids off at the movies. On the weekend, sometimes for the whole day.
Francis acts as protector to Zoe and Carl. Bullies pick on Zoe; he kicks their ass. A shop teacher picks on Carl. He scares the shit out of him.
Carl learns to be a people pleaser, a class clown, a comedian. He defuses fights with jokes. He tells people what they want to hear, distracts them from what they’re angry about. Francis accuses him of being a wimp (or whatever they said in the 1940s). You never stand up to people. So what if you get your nose broke? So what?
1941 Pearl Harbor. WW II breaks out. It forms the background for the rest of the story. Constantly blaring out from radios, newspapers, conversations.
Carl turns Francis into a substitute father. They share a room. Francis tells Carl his dreams of flight. Airplanes. Airplanes are all he can think about. There’s a model plane hanging from the ceiling. Carl asks Francis what was father like? Francis tells him stories. Carl tells Francis about his dreams of fire. He keeps having them. Dreams of his father burning to death. That’s horseshit. He died instantly. He lies.
Zelda dotes on Francis, despite the shit he gives her. There’s a slightly sick quality to her affection. She sees her dead husband in him. It’s creepy. He knows it’s creepy and avoids her. She starts to drink. She’s still looking for a man.
A hotel guest acts inappropriately to Zoe. Zelda projects her own lustful responses onto the kid. Assumes she was asking for it. Zelda, in a fit of guilt, sends Zoe to a Catholic school. Doesn’t want her to be like her.
Zoe dreams of Hollywood. Becoming an actress. Her escape, blended in her mind with Catholic iconography. She devours movie magazines.
Carl and Francis, in spite of the crap, manage to have fun. They horse around.
Carl finds a dead body. A guest who’s hung himself. Hell, says Francis. It’s only a dead body.
Francis continues to dream of flight. Francis and Carl run around, watching the P-38 Mustangs fly at Homestead Airbase.
Zelda, occasionally, gets drunk and breaks into Carl and Francis world. It’s always some rant about money, money, money. Carl’s side of the family owes her. That rich bastard in the mansion in Kentucky owes her. She raised his grandkids, spent $X, Y, Z on this and that. She gets into mind-numbingly microscopic details about what she’s owed, the inheritance she has coming, the great profit/loss balance sheet in the sky. Goes into schemes how she plans to get her share. Mom, you’re boring the crap out of me. Get the hell out of here.
Francis is not entirely noble. He scares the shit out of Zelda by throwing dummies off the hotel fire escape railing. And various other pranks. He manipulates Carl into being his servant– doing most of the hotel scutwork. Carl, who worships the ground Francis is trying to fly off from, thinks it’s a privilege.
Francis has his dad’s fearlessness. And his mom’s sex drive. He’s sexually active at 16 or so. Has sex with a married woman while still a teenager. Carl overhears dirty talk on the phone. He worries that Francis, his angelic brother, may be going to hell.
Meanwhile, Carl and Francis continue to run around.
Colorful scenes of WWII. Hitler with open mouth painted in tolet bowl. Florida crackers. The judgemental Baptist church next door who won’t let them get a liquor license. “To Kill a Mockingbird” vibe.
Francis stands up to some very dangerous people who knifed one of his buddies. He kicks ass against very serious odds.
Carl wonders how he could risk his life like that. Francis replies: how couldn’t you? It’s what you do.
Gas rationing and the rest of it is murder to the hotel business. Mom is barely scraping by. All work and no play.
In desperation, she snags a low-class solider who happened to be eating in the hotel restaurant. Ironically, he’s from a German family. They marry in a minute. He goes back to war. She sees it as a financial investment. But she’s not getting any.
As the decade drags on, Mom goes off the deep end. Has a sloppy, public affair with a low class bastard. Very shocking in the cracker Florida of the 1940s.
Francis, now 17, kicks the dude’s ass and sends him packing.
Zelda confronts him, but Francis puts her in her place. She backs down. This teenage badass is the man. He’s a superhero. Carl is in awe. Life’s a fight. You can’t run away, says Francis.
Francis tells Carl he’s enlisted in the Army Air Corps. The youngest person in the USA to do so.
Before he gets shipped off, Francis sees a movie with Carl: Disney’s “Victory through Airpower” about Alexander Seversky’s vision to create an Air Force. In diminishing perspective lines, an endless formation of planes ascend to the heavens like angels. We’re going to win the war.
Francis dies in a training accident. He burns to death, like his father before him.
Zelda gets drunk out of her mind and rages against God.
Why did you take my good son?
She sends Carl to military school.
Carl decides to play it safe for the rest of his life.