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A certain irony trails Louis Auchincloss's long career as a writer (he is the author of 50 books, including 36 previous works of fiction). His portraits of the upper reaches of American society, of the old East Coast aristocracy and their haunts and habits, has been so assured -- and, often, so unsparing -- that he has frequently been described as primarily a novelist of manners, and politely dismissed. But as this precise, moving novel reminds us, Mr. Auchincloss is, more importantly, a moralist. He may write about well-heeled attorneys, influential businessmen, aristocratic educators and socialites, but he's after something more than a realistic portrait of that world.
Oscar Fairfax, born in 1895 into "one of the very few American families who descended in the male line from a pre revolutionary British peer," grows up well aware of the "charm of belonging to an establishment." After graduating from Yale he joins his father's Manhattan law firm, and over the span of a lengthy career watches it become one of the largest and most influential firms in the city. But he also grows up with the conviction, impressed on him by his father, that the family's "seemingly impregnable social position was something of a myth, a relic." Goodhearted, liberal, honest, energetic, he sets out to do good, to be of use. More than that, because he nurtures "a hobby of believing in people," Oscar frequently attempts to exercise a benevolent influence on those around him. He becomes the mentor of a bright, penniless young man, seeing him through college, prodding him into becoming a lawyer. During the 1930s he attempts, for the best possible reasons, to convince a Supreme Court Justice to support the New Deal's extraordinary legislation. Misreading his only son's interests and character, he repeatedly presses unfortunate courses of action on him.
None of these efforts turn out well. Oscar's morality, while well-intentioned, is inflexible; it never admits the complexities of human nature. His education, then, is finally in the need for a humane morality, one that is wise enough to accept how varying and surprising human needs can be.
Mr. Auchincloss packs a remarkable amount of incident into a slender narrative, all of it told in the terse, elegant prose that has become one of his trademarks. Once again he is writing about the upper classes, but once again he is dealing, in a highly original and moving manner, with questions that transcend class and time.