It's easy to tally up what's on offer in Louis Auchincloss' new novel: six generations of an upper-class New York family, examined from 11 points of view, in less than...
“East Side Story”
by Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin, 227 pp., $24
It’s easy to tally up what’s on offer in Louis Auchincloss’ new novel: six generations of an upper-class New York family, examined from 11 points of view, in less than 250 pages.
But those bare facts don’t begin to hint at the droll and canny way Auchincloss can penetrate character, social milieu and historical moment. Consider, for instance, all the checks and balances at work in this concentrated yet lucid glance at New York’s charity-ball circuit circa 1960:
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“The rich, both old and new, bowing to the fashionable liberalism that had sprinkled the surface of the economy ever since the New Deal, found it better for their public relations and easier on their consciences, when they had any, if they could identify their quest for festivity with the alleviation of human misery or the fostering of the arts. They danced for hospitals and medical research; they wined and dined for museums and schools. Charity excused their show of diamonds; humanity justified their mirth.”
Auchincloss has made this moneyed Manhattan his fictional turf for close to 60 years, and his eye is as sharp as ever in “East Side Story.”
The targets of his scrutiny here are the Carnochan family, Scottish immigrants who made it big in the textile business in Civil War-era New York before becoming prominent as a dynasty of lawyers and bankers over the following 100 years (the action goes up to the 1960s). They count among their number some prigs, an overcalculating marital strategist or two, one poignant tuberculosis victim, one charming and uninhibited Priapus, one religious convert, one fake religious convert with an ulterior motive, several boozers — and, among the women, some refreshingly forthright straight-talkers.
The closest thing to a linking character here is lawyer David Carnochan, a slippery or sagacious (take your pick) career strategist and flip-flopper who sums up his credo: “It’s never too late to change one’s mind.” And the nearest thing passing for open rebellion among this tightknit clan is a son’s decision to marry a dentist’s daughter from Riverside Drive rather than choose a bride from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, traditional home to New York’s wealthiest citizens.
Auchincloss navigates his crowded cast-list and expansive timescape nimbly. Figures whom we meet in their youth — David’s son, for instance, who in his teens is the artful diplomat in his family — we later revisit in middle-age, when transformations of character or the pitfalls of experience have changed them almost past recognition.
Character by character, situation by situation, Auchincloss employs the same quiet, precise touch. Here, for example, is the scoop on that Priapus and his mother: “He was everything to her, and he knew it, and she knew that this was not altogether a good thing. He had captivated and rendered impotent the parent who should have been his guide.”
In a few passages, the prose slips from admirably concise to unsatisfactorily cursory, skipping over the surface of the intended drama. Yet throughout most of this complex, viewpoint-shifting book, Auchincloss gets it right. The dilemmas he puts before his characters are tough ones. Ambitions and desires go only partly fulfilled; compromise and resignation, with one or two jokerlike exceptions, rule the day.
Under these conditions, questions of appropriate behavior naturally come up, and Auchincloss proves, as always, an artful deviser of ethical labyrinths. In his hands, “good,” “bad,” “progressive” and “reactionary” don’t stay still. They change places, take on guises, produce unintended consequences.
The Carnochans, as he sees them, are genuinely proud and talented. But in terms of conscience they can be strangely neutral, even amoral.
What, ultimately, have they given their world?
The answer to that question, and a final verdict on the family, is delivered in the book’s last chapter by an unexpected source — a voice that adds a dissenting descant to the chorus of voices that has gone before it.
It’s a testament to Auchincloss’ wily talents that the Carnochans’ chorus, sour notes and all, works so persuasively as a whole.