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Book Review, Books

Book Review – Wise Men by Stuart Nadler

Wise Men coverThe buzz and excitement surrounding debut author Stuart Nadler in the United States has gone global.  To call it hype would suggest that it’s not justified and believe me, it is.  Nadler is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (alma mater of no fewer than 17 Pulitzer Prize winners), has held teaching posts both there and at the University of Wisconsin and last year received a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation.  If that were not recognition enough, since publication of his short story collection The Book of Life and first novel Wise Men in quick succession, he’s been hailed as the next Great American Novelist and garnered comparisons with Updike, Roth and Cheever.  Any author would dream of launching a career from the golden spot where Stuart Nadler is standing, and yet it’s a lot of pressure to live up to.

It’s one thing to delay talking about The Book of Life until my Short Fiction Special at the end of April, but unfortunately I can’t undo the fact that I read it first.  I’m not going to hide the difficulty I faced in judging debut novel Wise Men on its own merits.  Let’s just say that based on what I’d already seen of Stuart Nadler, my expectations were sky high and then some.

The novel is the first-person account of Hilly (Hilton) Wise, son of big-shot lawyer Arthur Wise (so that explains the title, to a degree).  It’s written in three equal parts set in 1952, 1972 and 2008.  In the first part, Hilly is 17 years old and extremely uncomfortable with the change in his family circumstances due to the enormous wealth and notoriety his father has gained in the space of just five years representing the families of air crash victims in class action lawsuits.  Arthur’s purchase of a cottage in Bluepoint, Cape Cod, proves a significant – it wouldn’t be too strong to say disastrous –  turning point in the lives of all concerned.  Both of Hilly’s parents have changed beyond recognition although one suspects that Arthur was never pleasant.  His arrogance and prejudice reach new lows in his treatment of the black caretaker Lem Dawson.  “The sellers threw in their boy,” he tells Hilly, whose response to things which disgust him deeply is often frustratingly passive.  Arthur’s business partner Robert Ashley who lives in the next house along the coast is an important character, who amongst other things serves as a counterpoint and voice of decency.

The novel starts at its most powerful, laying foundations for what Nadler does best – painful, complicated relationships between men, and between fathers and sons in particular.  Partly through boredom and loneliness and partly as a gesture of rebellion against Arthur, Hilly forms a bond with Lem and his 16 year-old niece Savannah who lives with her father in abject poverty, which he witnesses.  This looks like being a normal adolescent infatuation on Hilly’s part, with the added complication of the racial divide:

She blushed, either because of her hand, or because of the way she’d intimated that I might indeed get to know her well enough at some point that I might learn some of her secrets.  Suddenly, nothing mattered more to me – not my father, not what was in the car, not the fact that I’d just driven 60 miles without any permission.  I looked down at her hand, and then, inexplicably, I reached out and put my hand on top of hers.  She pulled away so quickly that I thought I’d hurt her.

It is in fact, an obsession which dogs Hilly throughout his life and one which cannot be credibly accounted for on the romantic/erotic grounds many readers might be expecting (especially from the UK cover).  I would have liked to see this angle developed a bit further – it may not be at the heart of the book but it wouldn’t have detracted from the overarching motivation for Hilly’s inability to forget Savannah, which stems from regret for an act with unintentionally awful consequences.  Here, he’s talking to Savannah about Lem, and it’s a perfect example of his naieveté about the interaction possible between people of different colour at that time:

This is fine, he’s my friend,’ I said.  She frowned.  ‘He’s not your friend,’ she said sadly.  ‘You his master, idiot.  He’s your boy.’

After such a compelling set-up complete with mysteries begging to be solved – right down to disappearing personal belongings – the narrative flags and plausibility suffers in the middle part set in 1972, when Hilly is working on a Boston newspaper as a reporter specialising in race relations at a time of widespread discord.  Unsurprisingly, his girlfriend Jenny doesn’t get his standpoint on money (he lets the roof leak rather than touch the millions his father has given him) or matters of racial disharmony.  She’s in the dark when he travels to Iowa on pretext of a story but is actually chasing a tenuous connection to the events of twenty years earlier.

Inevitably, for any piece of fiction set over half a century, Wise Men has been described as ‘sweeping’.   Nadler has both the courage to touch on big American themes of racism, moral justice and the little man v. big corporate interests and the talent to do them justice – his writing is engaging, clean-cut and stylish.  It’s a shame, therefore, that he wasn’t encouraged to truly ‘write this story out’ and explore some of those issues in greater depth rather than present it in three isolated timeframes.  So many aspects of Hilly’s own life – his entire marriage, for example – were skated over or reported briefly in retrospect when it would have been fascinating to see them lived out on the page.  This is even acknowledged: (speaking of his wife)

Maybe this book should include our time together.  I’m aware she appears as some sort of footnote.  But, really, what’s the point of reading a happy story?

I’m not convinced it would have been, all things considered.

Luckily, some of the promising early threads of the story were successfully picked up in the final part.  Again, it was the male relationships which delivered the blow.   It was only when I’d finished the novel that I was fully able to appreciate the subtlety of what is actually a many-layered and more skilfully constructed story than was always evident at the time.  A real sense of tension builds towards the end; I’d imagined several possible outcomes, none of them correct.  It’s an absolute blinder of an ending, the kind which causes the reader to re-evaluate all that has gone before.  It also calls for a redistribution of blame and responsibility.   I’ve probably spent as much time thinking about the book as I did reading it.

For Stuart Nadler to be writing as he does, to show such maturity of insight and to have achieved the level of recognition he has whilst still under the age of 35 is amazing.  There’s plenty of time for grand comparisons, and my feeling is this is just the magnificent start for him.

*POSTSCRIPT*

Next week, New Yorker Karl Taro Greenfeld visits the Literary Sofa to talk about his 10 favourite novels-in-stories following the recent UK publication of his own, Triburbia.

About Isabel Costello

Writer of contemporary fiction and the Literary Sofa blog. Originally from Salisbury, Wiltshire, I studied Modern Languages at Oxford before moving to London where I live with my husband and two sons.

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  1. Pingback: Short Fiction Special | Isabel Costello - May 2, 2013

  2. Pingback: Living up to a name – “Wise Men” by Stuart Nadler | Reading Through the BS - August 29, 2013

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