Stuart Nadler’s new novel “Wise Men” is not easily digestible, though its prose is not difficult. The themes it explores — from race, to lust, to the corruptive power of wealth — are so large and multifaceted as to render this one doozy of a seaside saga. Maybe it’s best to stay away from the water, lest we drown. Because the seaside we’re privy to isn’t warm and inviting — it’s frigid and cruel, populated by characters who lash out at each other even as they cling to one another to survive.
The story begins with the antithesis of survival. Death, and lots of it, becomes the business of one Arthur Wise, a Connecticut lawyer who stumbles upon an unexpected judicial goldmine — when commercial airplanes start dropping from the sky like irradiated birds, Arthur becomes the go-to attorney for the victims. It is this accumulation of wealth that leads to Arthur’s purchase of a beachside cottage at Bluepoint, a town in Cape Cod, in 1952. This is where the plot unravels and, with it, the Wise family and everyone around them.
The novel, split into three sections, follows Hilton “Hilly” Wise, Arthur’s son, as he contends with his nouveau riche status. He’s a pimply kid, none too bright, skinny and with a self-esteem crippled by his father’s celebrity and newfound wealth. The teenage baseball enthusiast is constantly unable to live up to his father’s expectations, which are as obscure to Hilly as the particulars of the racial society in which he lives. At 17, Hilly falls in love with Savannah, an African American girl and the niece of his property’s servant. This is not romance, however; it is Hilly’s unadulterated obsession that serves as the engine of this story’s propeller, a propeller that sputters along dysfunctionally. His lifelong fixation makes him guilty and ashamed. From Hilly’s brief love affair (if we can even call it that) the tale plummets into a sort of narrative nosedive until we travel into a future — Hilly’s future — as exacting as one of Arthur Wise’s legal defenses.
This, then, becomes a generational story. The teenage Hilly would fit in, albeit uncomfortably, self-consciously (though what 17-year-old isn’t uncomfortable or self-conscious?) at the Phillips Exeter Academy in John Knowles’ well-known novel, “A Separate Peace.” Just as Gene Forrester returns to his alma mater to come to terms with his past, so too does Hilly spend his lifetime attempting to reconcile his guilt with his present reality. Growing up with Hilly, seeing him change from naive child to insecure adult addicted to the memory of a 16-year-old girl, is uneasy, ugly work — “growing pains” is insufficient to describe his inexorable anxiety.
If we look towards Savannah, who is ostensibly the most redemptive force in the book, to save us from the Wise men’s crises, we may be disappointed. Though the plot’s timespan is comparable to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “Love in the Time of Cholera,” author Nadler is not interested in espousing love triumphant. “What’s the point of reading a happy story?” Hilly asks the reader at some point. It’s a reminder that Nadler isn’t here for some throwaway tale, though he knows all too well its inevitability: “But who wanted to write a book? All of that work and effort and privation, so that someone might drop it in the bathtub or leave it at the beach?”
It’s a burdensome fiction with curiously unburdensome prose. It’s a generational tale where the Wise men are anything but wise. Shame and guilt reign supreme in Hilly’s world, though compassion and a semblance of understanding enter the narrative too little too late. Do we enjoy our time with the Wise when even they don’t enjoy their time with each other? The jury’s still out on this one.
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