Eight stories by a master whose life list, if you will, runs to 35 fiction titles and a dozen of nonfiction. Here he is at his urbane best, chronicling the disappointments and scandals, foibles and tragedies of the rich and dispassionate. Auchincloss seems to be asking if privilege hardens the heart. Parents are cool and critical; love affairs are wretchedly premeditated, clinical, and not at all fun, yet genuine emotion is faintly detectable beneath the designer clothes and perfectly coiffed hair. In several tales, men in their seventies look back at their lives with quiet regret or smug pride. A grandfather frets over his meddling in his daughter's life and how it seems to have affected his grandson in "The Man of Good Will." "They That Have the Power to Hurt" is an intriguing tale about a roguish art critic who capsized his infamous affair with the "grand dame" of American letters by giving in to the entreaties of a male painter. Each of Auchincloss' stories is finely carved and close-grained--mere ornament at first glance, art upon reflection.
With 50 or so books to his credit, Auchincloss shows no signs of slowing down. And that's great news, because his word is as graceful and insightful as it's ever been. These eight stories, with their familiar social types and elegant settings, are vintage Auchincloss: moral tales that resonate with the history of our times, albeit from the top down. Seth Middleton, Dick Emmons, and Osborne Renwick are all wealthy, elderly men who, for one reason or another, find their cherished worldviews suddenly challenged: A retired lawyer of honor and decency cannot rescue his beloved grandson from utter despair ("The Man of Good Will"); in "The Lotos Eaters," a story as clever as Kingsley Amis's Old Devils, another distinguished lawyer, widowed early in life, decides to remarry; and in the fabulistic "Renwick Steles," an aging heir to a real-estate fortune realizes that he will live forever in the shadow of his perfect wife. The witty "They That Have Power To Hurt" is the Nabokovian memoir of a minor writer in his 70s determined to rationalize his history of sexual parasitism. The raging id of a neurasthenic tycoon in "The Poetaster" makes for a compelling tale of upper-class deviancy. In "`To My Beloved Wife'...," a wealthy matron is led astray by the false god of art (represented by an oily, Capote-like hanger-on). The romantic egoism of a once celebrated actress has left her a lonely "virgin Queen" in old age ("Priestess and Acolyte"). And "A Day and Then a Night" is the poignant story of a young man's self-doubt on the eve of US intervention in WW II. Throughout, Auchincloss's varied character studies, always subtle and sympathetic, speak directly to the quality of our lives. Ignoredby most anthologists, Auchincloss belongs among the masters of American short fiction, as this volume demonstrates. His publishers should silence skeptics with a fat collection spanning his 40-plus years of story-writing.