Being given $70 million probably doesn’t do much to firm up a young man’s backbone. That’s how much Hilly Wise, the narrator of Stuart Nadler’s novel “Wise Men,” has in his bank account. Only he won’t touch it.
It came from his father, Arthur Wise, a big-shot litigator who’s made a fortune on plane crashes, and Hilly regards it as “blood money.” He rejects the gift and the giver without ever ceasing to need them both.
Arthur, unlike the son, is a self-made man who belies the stereotype of the East Coast liberal Jew. For one thing, he isn’t liberal, as his ties to the Nixon administration suggest.
For another, he’s racist. He calls the family’s black servant, Lem Dawson, “boy” to his face and worse behind his back (and -- the year is 1952 -- pays him $8 a week).
So he isn’t thrilled when Hilly develops a crush on Lem’s niece, Savannah.
“Wise Men” stretches out over more than six decades. Nadler divides it into three parts: 1947-52, when Hilly is an adolescent; 1972, when he’s 38; and the present, when he’s in his 70s. Each part centers on an encounter between Hilly and his lifelong obsession, Savannah.
When they first meet, he’s rich and she’s dirt poor. When they see each other again, 20 years later, he’s even richer, but he doesn’t want to be.
Or rather, he does and he doesn’t. As Savannah notes, Hilly is “always trying to save people,” and money would make that ambition a lot easier to realize. Meanwhile, he’s scraping by, his millions untouched, as a civil-rights reporter for a Boston daily, with a nagging girlfriend who’s sick of debt and has none of Hilly’s scruples about cashing in.
Yet Hilly doesn’t have the character to match his stern conscience. His good intentions evaporate under pressure; his urge to help can (and at least once does) lead to disaster.
Like Hilly, “Wise Men” sets itself admirable goals. Nadler seeks to address American racism and the corrosive effects of money via two characters, Hilly and Arthur, who are both, for different reasons, unlikable.
And the author treats the reader as a grown-up. It isn’t his place to call them to account, his plot suggests, but ours.
But “Wise Men” is a first novel, and Nadler’s reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. While the Balzacian goal of showing life in all its gaudy unfairness is a fine aspiration for young novelists, if you’re not going to give the characters justice then you need to offer the reader other satisfactions, like a headlong plot or whipped-cream prose.
Nadler writes modestly quiet, careful prose. As for plot, at one point Savannah says, “Let’s avoid the melodrama,” and Nadler seems to take her request more seriously than Hilly does.
The passions that really fuel this story explode offstage, away from Hilly’s view. He spends his life in his father’s shadow, and when at last, as an old man, he sits down to write his memoirs, even then the real story turns out to be Arthur’s.
That complicated irony slices deeper than the easy irony of the title.
“Wise Men” is published by Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown (335 pages, $25.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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