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Book Review : Reviving the Waltz of Caste and Class

January 03, 1985|ELAINE KENDALL

Snow Ball by A. R. Gurney Jr. (Arbor House: $15.95)

As author laureate of the upper-middle class, Gurney is restrained, rational and perhaps a tad bland for readers accustomed to a higher emotional pitch, but he's absolutely true to the well-educated, mannerly, slightly out-at-the-elbows characters he celebrates. They're men whose suede patches are applied after their Harris tweed jackets begin to fray; women who never wear heels with jeans; who together started dancing school at 10, the boys in white gloves, the girls in knee socks and Mary Janes.

Children in that dancing school had to be approved by committee. Grown up, these people administer trust funds, marshall great forces of volunteers, work in family firms, and go back to class reunions looking relatively unchanged. They're the ones who put together the alumni notes for the college magazine, who keeps Brooks Brothers in business, who remember how to make a perfect martini and feel guilty whenever they invade capital. When they suffer, they tend to keep their misery to themselves.

Two Last Names

They're not necessarily named Muffie and Skip; both sexes often have two last names. As a result of these subtle differences from the general population, they are often misunderstood and satirized by readers and writers attuned to more flamboyant display. Until now, they haven't really had a writer all their own since J. P. Marquand.

This particular coterie lives in Buffalo, N.Y., where their ancestors settled when Buffalo was known as "The Queen City of the Great Lakes." Despite a wretched climate, a cultural life second to dozens, and a general air of decline, they have not moved away. Gurney's people believe in holding the fort, not letting down the side, keeping the family place up. If they don't, who will?

Middle-aged, sadder and wiser, Cooper Jones commits himself to reviving the Snow Ball, an annual dance held during the holiday seasons just after World War II and since abandoned. He's persuaded to act by Lucy Dunbar, a friend from those far-off dancing school days. Buffalo's decrepit George Washington Hotel, a once grand downtown landmark, is part of an urban renewal project and the site of a Winterfest to be run by Buffalo's new ruling elite, a coalition composed of current movers and shakers, none of them Old Guard.

In a sentimental mood following his 50th birthday party, Jones agrees to approach the Winterfest Committee with Lucy's counter proposal: that Winterfest may be fun, but it can't possibly have the cachet of the grand parties in the old ballroom. Lucy wants to convince the two best dancers of their high school years, Jack Daley and Kitty Price, to return for a reenactment of their youthful triumphs. She considers the facts that Daley is now lieutenant governor of Indiana and Kitty married to her third husband living in Florida as surmountable obstacles. She's convinced that both will drop everything to attend if assured the other will be there. Kitty, the most glamorous and wealthiest girl in town, was Jack's true love, unattainable because Jack was poor, Irish and from the wrong side of town. Lucy Dunbar, recently divorced, is an incurable romantic.

As the plans proceed, the novel goes backward to the wonderful order and innocence of life in Buffalo before the turbulence of the 1960s, to a tranquil era impeccably re-created by Gurney with his flawless sense of the manners and mores of the period. In planning the Snow Ball, Cooper and Lucy Dunbar are forced into intimacy and enjoy an inevitable but discreet affair, quite understandable in its context. Cooper's wife Liz is a bit remote since becoming a family counselor, and Cooper's present life is lonely, a touch too modern for his taste. He sees the re-creation of the Snow Ball as a way of reviving "the sounds and rhythms of his old domestic dance with Liz," now echoing only faintly through their empty house, their deserted life. "Maybe he wanted to bring back Jack and Kitty as a way of reconfirming that such a dance could still be done."

Caught up in her new and larger responsibilities, Liz is skeptical, sarcastic and impatient. Lucy understands Cooper's nostalgia; understanding becomes affection, and affection adultery--low-keyed, tentative, not altogether successful, but adultery all the same.

There are tensions and suspense appropriate to the problem. Will Jack Daley's political commitments allow him to come? Will Kitty's stodgy new husband encourage her to fly from Florida to Buffalo to dance with an old flame? Will Liz discover Cooper's infidelity? Will the old dancing school alumni buy tickets and will the organizers of the official Winterfest cooperate? That's the plot; while it's not calculated to keep you on the edge of your seat, it will hold you snuggled in an armchair, because it's not only about what might have been and what tricks time plays, but also about caste, class and social change. Those are all good solid themes; Gurney's characters are good solid citizens.

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