Virtue: A Novel

Virtue: A Novel

by Hermione Hoby

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Overview

Named a Summer Must Read by Wall Street Journal, Town & Country, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Refinery29, and more

“As she did in her radiant debut, Hoby once again turns her keen eye on a very specific type of New York City privilege. . . Excellent.” –Refinery29
 
A powerful novel of youth, desire, and moral conflict, in which a young man is seduced by the mirage of glamour—at terrible cost.

Arriving in New York City for an internship at an elite but fading magazine, Luca feels invisible: smart but not worldly, privileged but broke, and uncertain how to navigate a new era of social change. Among his peers is Zara, a young Black woman whose sharp wit and frank views on injustice create tension in the office. Luca is equally drawn to an attractive and wealthy white couple—a prominent artist and her filmmaker husband—whose lifestyle he finds alien and alluring. As summer arrives, Luca is swept up in the fever dream of their marriage, joining them at their beach house, and nurturing an infatuation both frustrating and dangerous. Only after he learns of a spectacular tragedy in the city he has left behind does he begin to realize the moral consequences of his allegiances.

In language at once lyrical and incisive, Hermione Hoby (“a writer of extreme intelligence, insight, style and beauty” —Ann Patchett) offers a clear-eyed, unsettling novel of the allure of privilege and the costs of complacency.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593188590
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/20/2021
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Hermione Hoby is the author of the novel Neon in Daylight, which was twice listed as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Frieze. Raised in London, she lives in Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

1

 

There's something kind of gratifying about a really bad birthday. Toward the garish end of 2016, the year our idols died, I turned twenty-three alone, failing to read a book in the dim eggy light of a deserted Chinatown bar. I'd convinced myself that this stoically miserable total nonevent was preferable to drinks with a few people mustering faint cries of "Happy birthday!" or, God forbid, trying to sing the song-always too slow, always going on longer than anyone wanted, particularly when groaning toward that final protracted lift on the first syllable of the penultimate birthday.

 

I'd hoped that being alone might feel sort of heroic, or at least dignified. Or at least grown-up. It wasn't any of these.

 

It was the weekend before Thanksgiving, the end of the nothing month of November, and I remember raininess, a vague and unremitting overlay of pathetic fallacy. The sky had a passive-aggressive quality, bruised clouds withholding their light while telling you they were fine, not to worry about them, they knew you didn't really care anyway. Ahead lay the grotesquerie of the reality star who'd soon be eating McDonald's and watching TV in the White House. It was a bad joke in the worst taste. The incoming president was the executive producer of The America Show, barreling faster toward the series finale, and the ratings would be great. Later, Zara would say in her deadly deadpan that the good ones had all peaced out because they knew what was coming: Prince, Bowie, Muhammad Ali. Names now, more than a decade later, half-forgotten in a world too tyrannized by the present to have time for history.

 

An aggressively cheerful barmaid cajoled me into ordering the house cocktail, which arrived in a small coupe glass, the liquid within an embarrassingly fruity shade of puce, a mocking strawberry spliced and listing down the side, and I sat there with my effeminate cocktail, suppressing a shudder as I felt it sheath my teeth with sugar.

 

This was eleven years ago. By which I mean about a thousand, because back then I had of course zero idea that we were in the Before times. My pitiful twenty-third birthday and the Technicolored year that followed-that color-saturated, richly lit time of the two of them, Paula and Jason, my twin movie stars who for a moment were truly nothing less than my life-it all seems now to have happened on some discontinued film stock. This is how it goes, I guess, that people who were once more real to you than life itself eventually come to feel like stock photo models in a collection of well-framed shots imprinted on your once impressionable brain.

 

That November, though, I was newly arrived in the city, with few friends, or at least nobody with whom I wanted to eat either turkey or birthday cake. After Dartmouth, second-least impressive of the Ivies, I'd been anxious enough to delay adulthood as to spend a final school year at Oxford, where my voice became inflected with the rounded vowels of moneyed English youth-the same youth who had ribbed me, paid attention to me, and even kind of fetishized me for being a bloody Yank. In my first months in Manhattan, then, I was frequently mistaken for an English expat. With strangers, I usually went along with this, murmuring the lie "London" with a diffident smile when a cashier or barista asked where I was from. In truth, my hometown was Broomfield, Colorado, a newish agglomeration of prefab-looking housing developments squatting on flat, treeless land in a zone that was neither Denver nor Boulder and was distinguished by nothing but its in-betweenness. If I could offer you a defining image of my adolescence, it would look like this: I'm lying on my bed with the flat screen blaring downstairs and the little Morrissey who lives in my head is plaintively singing: "And when you want to live, how do you start?"

 

When the blazered Oxford boys heard I was from Colorado, some enthusiastically mentioned their trips to Aspen or Vail, or the less informed would mention the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, and I'd smile vaguely and change the subject because I knew it would embarrass them to learn that I was poor enough that I'd never strapped my feet into skis and hadn't even managed a road trip to Arizona. I was an only child, a former fat kid, son of a dental nurse named Kimberly who ran an Etsy side hustle making customized wedding-caketoppers out of modeling clay. Thus our windowsills were populated by smug little pairs of round-faced figures with miniature button eyes, and our small house reeked of the fumes they emitted as they baked, which made me think-unmentionably, unacceptably-of the Holocaust.

 

My mom's life had been a landslide of disappointments, chief among them my father's departure a few weeks after my conception. Which is to say, nineteen years before I too decided to leave her in Broomfield, abdicating any future responsibility for her sadness. She'd named me Luke. The day I arrived in Oxford, I became Luca.

 

Twenty-three is too young for basically anything. There was a boy at Oxford who was maybe a bit in love with me, or a bit in something with me. (He'd once left a sheaf of printed-out poems under my dorm room door-Cavafy, O'Hara, Miguel Hern‡ndez.) His dad was old buddies with an editor in New York City, and so, with shameful passivity, I let the poor kid edit my cover letter-and by edit I mean rewrite-and before I knew it, I'd been granted a nine-month internship I didn't much deserve at a fancy American literary magazine, an august quarterly dating from 1923 that published fiction by famous writers, reviews of important books, and interviews with literary eminences. Its covers were notable enough to be available as framed prints. I'd never read the thing. I was a fake, in other words, although it turned out I had plenty of company.

 

The magazine came draped in its myths and rumors the way a dowager might in her silks and furs, swathed in its inheritance with uncertain irony. In fact, the magazine actually was partly funded for decades by a batty old viscountess aging away in an actual castle in the actual Scottish Highlands, as well as, it was said, the CIA. Once every five years, the viscountess opened her castle doors to the magazine's senior staff and a coterie of youngish writers selected as much for their presumed table manners and physical comeliness as for any literary talent. Obviously, interns weren't invited. I'd heard-my attention instantly bright, tightening to the scandal of it-that the old lady was unsurprisingly racist, that at one such dinner she'd commended a Philadelphia-born Asian American writer on his excellent English. I knew I wasn't meant to know things like this, that they were an embarrassment. But to whom? It was as if the magazine were a person.

 

Which it kind of was. The New Old World was edited by a figure with the indelible name of Byron Tancread. More than edited, dude was the magazine. He'd been there forever; you could pick him out in black-and-white photographs on the walls, a clean-shaven, square-jawed young American in slacks and a brilliantined side part, taking a knee in team photographs starred with grins, a clubhouse of affable men. In some pictures, there'd be one or two demure-looking women perched in the background, straight-backed and soberly clad in knee-length tweed, a note of vague reproach in their eyes. I liked to think they were trying to communicate some message to me, to this already unimaginable future in which I had just arrived.

 

For a while, I couldn't work out whether I was meant to revere or ridicule Byron. He was a drinker, that was clear, but the light in which we interns were meant to view this was hazy and almost certainly irrelevant. People said he'd been punched by Mailer once-or maybe it was Thomas Pynchon, or maybe he'd been the puncher, not the punchee, accounts varied. It was something people alluded to knowingly, as if the vague fisticuffs were one of his life's central facts. Now that he's gone, I see that there was a decency to him; that the rest of it-the condescension, or the leonine ego, or the storms of temper that left everyone silent and shaken, or the outlawed ideas about men and "girls," or that infamous time he referred to "the ghetto"-didn't really affect the fact that he was a mostly decent man. And maybe that's the troubling thing; he seems to have been a good man anyway.

 

Except in 2016 there wasn't really such a thing as a good man, as far as I could tell. This was our new doctrine, with, it must be said, a lot of evidence behind it. Masculinity was toxic and, masochists, we turned our gazes to our screens to watch the president confirm it daily. We saw it in his dead black piggish eyes, the stark whiteness of their sockets within the caked orange of his face, his groping sausage hands. (It was terrible how much I thought about the president's hands.) He was the overlord of a white male underbelly of underlings: the incels and school shooters and 4chan trolls. I had no appetite for gunmen's manifestos, the sight of swastikas made me sick and frightened, and I liked and loved women, but nonetheless, guilty until proven innocent, I walked around cowed by my own cis-white-maleness while wondering if it might somehow benefit me and the world to nurture whatever queerness I had in me. On subway platforms I caught myself staring at posters for a shockingly popular TV show that declared in an adamantine font, all men must die. All? All seemed like a lot.

 

I wanted badly to be good; I wanted desperately to be liked. It was easy to confuse the two.

 

Twenty-three: too young for almost anything except booze. It was part of the magazine's character and glamour. You couldn't not drink, because here was the new old world living on. Come five, Byron would emerge from his corner office, clap his paws, exhale the words, "The hour is upon us," to no one or everyone, and we would set to it. I took to drink with aplomb. I resolved to end my Coloradan attachment to beer, that bleary swill of frat boys and other oafs. Instead, I made Negronis for everyone, scything orange peel into voluptuous gyres as if I'd been doing this my whole life-as if I hadn't just YouTubed it the night before. Equal parts gin, vermouth, Campari: you couldn't really fuck it up. It became my thing. "One of Luca's Negronis," my fellow interns said, as though they were already concoctions of local renown. I can't tell you I didn't love this.

 

There were five interns, and we seemed to feel varying degrees of bashful thrill at being admitted to the sanctum of The New Old World. There was bun-faced Jen, who spoke too fast and too much, loved Jane Austen, wore ruby lipstick on Mondays, and had a habit of talking about her Mooncup in particular and menstruation in general, then asking "you boys" if it made us uncomfortable. "You boys" rang false, because I didn't really form a unit with the other two: querulous, raw-boned James, a young man whose affect would have to wait until he was a few decades older for it to make sense, and restless, gloomy Amit, whose incessant leg jiggling drove one of our editors crazy. (Julia would shoot his knees a murderous stare, then willfully look away, then back again, eyes bugging. Amit remained oblivious. Was I the only one who noticed this? Maybe. Am I the only one who still remembers it? Almost certainly.) And then there was Zara, who was said to have turned down Princeton and Harvard and gone to Brown instead, as if this were a great act of principled sacrifice. Zara was conspicuously the smartest of us all. She talked the least, but what she did say needed no editing.

 

Each Monday the magazine held an ideas meeting-a standard term that nonetheless struck me as pretentious. Let us meet! To exchange ideas! In our first such meeting on the first morning of our internship, the five of us were seated around the table in Byron's commodious corner office while Julia introduced us all, ostensibly to one another but manifestly to the large man at the head of the table for whom presiding came naturally. His chair was different from everyone else's: a wide seat with padded armrests upholstered in wine-colored leather, brass-studded. I watched him irritably shove into place a wrinkled, jaundice-colored cushion at his lower back before he settled into full enthronement. That cushion, which appeared roughly as old as the magazine, had the look of something exhumed.

 

Julia discreetly read aloud our biographies, which consisted of little more than alma maters and majors. James (Harvard, naturally; English, predictably) dipped his head once on hearing his name, virtually bowed. Amit (UCLA, Comp Lit) nodded agreeably, as if some decent song were playing in the distance. Zara (Brown, of course, American Studies) watched Julia with cool intent, as if making sure she got the details right. I endured my own blink-of-an-eye CV while suffering a painful stretched smile. And when it came to Jen (Bard, Individualized Study), she did a big wave and grinned broadly, as if she were on a reality show-here to make friends and win. There was a blot of lipstick on her front teeth that gave her a faintly rabid air. I stared. A mistake in the face can take on an ugliness that's a bit like beauty. Someone should tell her, I thought. Someone should wipe it away.

 

Afterward, when we'd all been stationed at our computers and given our log-on deets, I stole a covert glance around the edge of my terminal and caught Jen taking selfies at her desk, sipping from a large mug that read male tears. The mug's fuchsia-colored disco lettering clashed with her tomato lipstick. I watched as she made a simpering moue around the rim of the mug, holding her phone aloft, making microadjustments to maximize the flattery of angles. Then in a blink her features slackened back into unperformance and she dipped her gaze to her phone. I waited a few minutes, stealthily retrieved my own phone, and called up Instagram.

 

"First day at The New Old (MALE) World . . . ready to shake things up!!!"

 

Five emojis blew kisses.

 

I looked at the image for a moment-her arched eyebrows and arch expression, her red pout around the rim of the empty mug-and hesitated, my thumb hovering above the touch screen, before dropping my phone soundlessly into my backpack. Later, on the subway, I'd cave and duly double-tap to make the Like of a heart bloom. At Jen's enthusiastic suggestion first thing that morning, we were all following one another (except Zara, who spurned Instagram and Facebook but not Twitter). It seemed impolitic, lacking in collegiality, not to Like Jen's post.

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