From the Publisher
"Magnificent . . . A Death in Venice for our time."
San Francisco Chronicle
"IN THIS FINE NOVEL, BEGLEY PROBES WITH INTELLIGENCE AND SKILL THE MIND AND HEART OF A FAMOUS, FANTASTICALLY WEALTHY NEW YORKER NEARING THE END OF HIS LIFE."
The Boston Sunday Globe
"INTRIGUING . . . PROFOUND . . . A STUNNINGLY SOBERING PORTRAIT."
Los Angeles Times
. . . This is an art that calls to mind Louis Auchincloss' upper-crust characters, Paul Auster's defiantly unsentimental voice and Alice Munro's vivid, nonsense storytelling. Begley marshals all these elements. . . and forges a fiction altogether his own. -- Newsday
Begley probes with intelligence and skill. -- Boston Sunday Globe
Vanessa V. Friedman
There is a compellingly austere, cut-glass clarity to the book. -- Entertainment Weekly
Whether the subject is art, religion, literature, fatherhood or friendship, Begley has mined his novel with depth charges that he seems to invite the reader to detonate beneath his own protagonist. The result is a novel that is brillantly, brutally countercathartic. -- The New York Times
A stunning achievement. . . Begley has created a terribly funny, touching, infuriating, and complex character in Schmidt, whose self-deceptions and imprisonment by his own worldview stand not only as a devastating portrait of a disappearing world but also sound a strangely evocative cautionary tale. . . We are chagrined that the telling detail, the crystalline prose, has to end. -- Los Angeles Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
There is perhaps no more worldly novelist writing today than Begley: worldly in his attention to class, wealth and sex, but most of all in his attention to pleasure in the face of death. So when his latest protagonist, Thomas Mistler, ruthless captain of a huge advertising firm, learns that he has cancer of the liver, he decides not to fight it and not to tell his wife or son about it immediately but, instead, to go to Venice, "the one place on earth where nothing irritated him," on a clandestine solo vacation. There he has--as Begley heroes do--a series of disquieting sexual adventures (in this case parodies of the erotic epiphany of Thomas Mann's Aschenbach), which bring home to us, if not to Mistler, his essential loneliness. In certain ways, this slim novel seems a pendant sketch to Begley's recent masterpiece, About Schmidt, another study of an aging, philandering gentleman's failures to connect. But this sketch presents enigmas of its own. Begley's dialogue, always highly starched, now sounds epistolary, as if carried on at a distance of miles and days. His hero's luxurious solipsism calls to mind not just Begley's constant great familiars (among them Mann, Jouve, Proust, James, Ford Madox Ford and Nabokov) but the random glamour of an Antonioni film, in which characters appear like emanations, free of the normal exigencies of plot. Even amid the palazzos and great churches of his vividly conjured Venice, Begley displays the bitter moral intelligence, the fear of emptiness, that has distinguished his late, extraordinary career from the start. Once again he has created a sinister, highly ambiguous protagonist in a haunting, ambivalent work of art.
A Madison Avenue executive wraps up his life with a visit to Venice. From the author of About Schmidt (LJ 6/15/96).
Begley's fifth (About Schmidt, 1996; As Max Saw It, 1994) is the tale of a master of finance, advertising, actually, who faces terminal cancer with the same stiff upper lip and commanding refinement that led him through his not- always-appealing life. Diagnosed with cancer that leaves him about half a year to go, Thomas Mistler heads into the final few months of his life in panic? despair? fear? None of the above, thank you. This man who has gotten, taken, one might say, all he's wanted from life isn't going to stop living the same way now. He'll tell all to his dutiful but unloved wife Clara, but not just yet, and the same for his much-loved but distant son and only child, Sam, 36. There'll be time later for final moments, but it's essential first that the sale of Mistler's firm, already underway, not be jeopardized by news of his illness. Still, on the other hand, maybe Mistler does need to be alone and think a little: so, with a few practical lies to Clara and Sam, business abroad, delays, he's off to his favorite city of Venice, 'the one place on earth where nothing irritated him.' Not quite true, though, since unexpected sex with a girl he'd met only once, at a New York dinner party, ends up turning him cruelly pompous and giving her the push, so he's alone to appreciate the great art, food, and wines ('There were so many reds he had never drunk') of the ancient city. But even then, he'll bump into an old Harvard classmate, through him into another one, who this time, we're led to believe, is the one great (uncaptured) passion of his life, for whom he buys an exquisite antique glass candelabra, impressing even the glass-dealer with his knowledge, taste,refinement, and discretion. The chronicling of a patrician life from the inside: sometimes gripping, often familiar, much of the time with airs.
Read an Excerpt
I understand, said Mistler.
Really, there was no need to rush the conversation. The waiting room was empty. Bill Hurley had become Mistler's family doctor fifteen years earlier, succeeding to the practice of an uncle, who died on the tennis court of a ruptured aneurism upon double-faulting in the fourth game of the fourth set of his club's senior doubles championship, when the score was forty-love. By now, he was also a friend. The secretary had specifically asked Mistler to stop by toward the end of the afternoon, when Dr. Hurley would be through with other patients. Just the same, as soon as Mistler arrived, she began to apologize, because the doctor was running late.
Don't worry, he told her. For once, I don't mind waiting.
That was the truth. An interval of empty time seemed vastly preferable to what would follow. In fact, if there was a reason to hurry, once Mistler had reluctantly abandoned a two-year-old issue of Glamour and found himself in Hurley's office, the place where Hurley interrogated and decreed, the reluctant flesh having been poked and kneaded into yielding its secrets in the adjoining cubicle that housed the examination table and a reliable scale, the only piece of Hurley's equipment Mistler was fond of, it had to be that the place was so ugly. With its stacks of manila envelopes containing, Mistler supposed, X rays and EKG tapes, apparently untouched since the time of Hurley's uncle (if indeed either the uncle or the nephew had ever examined their contents, which Mistler was not ready to take for granted), the fake antique desk, small enough to fit in a college dormitory room, cluttered with pharmaceutical company doodads, and, on the walls, prints of ducks alongside diplomas that traced Hurley's progress from his New Jersey prep school through the last board certification, this room spoke of indifference and small economies. One would not have tolerated such a thing in any other high-priced service business. Did it ever occur to doctors to have discussions that broke the patient's heart outside the office, over a cup of coffee, or a drink, if they were unwilling to spend money on furniture? One could, after all, with a minimum of skill, maneuver the patient into paying the check, or bury the disbursement in the statement as a stool test or the like. Most lawyers Mistler dealt with would have considered either a lead-pipe cinch.
Apparently, there was nothing further Bill Hurley intended to say without being prompted. It was up to Mistler.
All right. How much time do I have?
Before I die, of course. What else could I mean?
You could mean before we get to work. As Mel Klein told you, it may be possible to deal with this thing surgically. Right away. It's a primary cancer. That's the good news. Then, provided all goes well, you may also have treatment. That will be up to Mel. Ultimately, you would wait for a graft. They do become available.
But he also said that Dr. Steele thought the odds for this sort of operation weren't good. Have you or Dr. Klein or Dr. Steele changed your minds?
No. The growth is large and it may have spread. Dave Steele can't be sure until he opens you up.
And if it has spread?
Hefill sew you up and wefill do our best to keep you comfortable.
In the hospital?
At first. And probably at the end as well. Hurley's face remained cheerful.
I think Ifill pass. Can you make a guess about how long I have if I do nothing? I'd also like to know how bad it's going to be.
It all depends on what is really going on inside you. If the problem is still local, but you have no treatment, not even radiation to shrink the growth, perhaps half a year. Perhaps less. Of that time, the next couple of months should be only annoying. No worse than that. Youfill become more tired and more anemic, and youfill lose weight. Later, youfill be in the war zone, especially if other organs are colonized. Every day, this will become a stronger possibility. But even without surgery, X rays and chemo could buy you time. You'd want to talk to Mel about that. Of course, if there is already general involvement, all bets are off. These things don't run on time, like Mussolini's trains. Heh! Heh! You know that.
But surely you will arrange matters so that I don't make it into the war zone as you put it. I count on that.
If you mean to suggest that Ifill kill you, I can tell you right now I won't. I am here to treat patients. Of course, it's your right to refuse treatment. You will get all the medication you need for pain, but don't kid yourself. There comes a point at which medication can't do the job.
Is that any worse than what will happen if I have the operation and the treatment?
There is a chance that the growth hasn't spread and can be taken out. Then, with treatment and luck, you could lead a normal life-especially if you get a graft. Otherwise, youfire right, the outcome will be much the same.
Except that I will have had the operation and the treatment and everything that comes with it. I think Ifill leave matters as they are. If you could just prescribe whatever you think works best to give me a boost vitamins, wild ginseng, tonics. I imagine that's possible.
Hurley scribbled busily. Here, he said, these may do some good and certainly won't do any harm. Then he gave Mistler the manly but affectionate look he normally reserved for telling him to cut down on red wine and shellfish, if he didn't want another gout attack, and, of course, on cigars, and continued: You shouldn't take that sort of decision before you talk it through with Clara and Sam. If you make the effort to fight, and bring them into it, they will find it easier to accept the outcome. It's extremely hard to watch a husband and father pass away-especially when it might be much sooner than necessarybecause he has decided to die without letting his doctors treat him.
But it's not me making the decision to die this way and at this time-in fact quite a bit sooner than I expected. His Majesty Mistler's body made that choice. I am only deciding how I will spend the next few months. If I can help it, it won't be on hospital gurneys attached to machines that make noises like something out of a science fiction film. I don't believe Clara or Sam would like that either.
You'd be astonished. The whole world loves a fighter, your family included.
Ifive done my share of fighting, Bill. Believe me. Maybe that's why I am so sure that now is the time to surrender. Unconditionally!
You did promise you would bring Clara in.
Mistler took note of Hurley's increasing annoyance.
And so I will. Just give me a little time. Let her have a couple of carefree weeks. There is nothing to participate in, after all, not right away.
After that, he managed a nice smile and shook Hurley's hand.