The Golden Calves by Louis Auchincloss (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95; 213 pages)
An uptown writer in a downtown age, Louis Auchincloss has written 31 novels of life among the well-born and well-bred; his nonfiction books tending to be just as Olympian. Leaving East Village decadence and midtown miseries to his juniors, he continues to concentrate upon the world he knows and understands best; the rarefied reaches of high finance, law, and philanthropy, a world in which appearances are often deceiving and splendid facades conceal base motives, where marriages can still be morganatic and invading capital is unforgivable.
The acknowledged literary heir of Henry James and Edith Wharton, Auchincloss shares their social and economic preoccupations, writing with cool dispassion and unflinching insight. Like his predecessors, he is subtle, ironic and exceedingly worldly, and like them, he excels at plot, character and setting, sometimes creating the impression that dialogue is a necessary but uncongenial part of the novelist's task. When James' conversation was dense and convoluted; Wharton's formal and elliptical, the reader made generous allowances, assuming that characters from another era were entitled to express themselves in sentences as fussy and confining as their clothes or as overdecorated as their houses.
Though Auchincloss works in that tradition, he's also our contemporary, and the sort of phrases that logically emerged from the lips of Fledda Vetch or Newland Archer seem outlandish when they're spoken by 32-year-old Anita Vogel or her hardly older male colleague, Carol Sweeters, in "The Golden Calves." Even granting that Anita is a shy museum curator and lives with that institution's elderly benefactress instead of an apartment of her own, it's still hard to imagine someone born in 1956 rejecting a proposal by saying, "I could never even think of marrying a man who could lock out in the cold the creature who had been his pet and friend." (Sweeters had heartlessly abandoned his cat after enjoying its company during a summer at Newport).