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Downtown Deities : FALSE GODS, By Louis Auchincloss (Houghton Mifflin: $21; 214 pp.)

February 02, 1992|Anne Bernays | Bernays' most recent novel is "Professor Romeo" (Penguin). She teaches writing at the Harvard Extension School and Boston College

Reading Louis Auchincloss is a little like watching one of those engaging Victorian scenes in the window of a pricey department store at Christmastime, with elegantly dressed, animated doll figures executing a domestic choreography. In "False Gods," Auchincloss's 32nd book of fiction, the author once again proves that he understands the nuances of what we used to call "moral dilemma" in a way no other American writer does. For him, the deadly serious moral dilemma is all--plot and theme, text and subtext.

Each of the six stories in "False Gods" takes place chiefly in New York, Auchincloss's special turf, and focuses on one of six Greek gods got up in more or less modern dress. Thus "Hermes, God of the Self-Made Man" is about Maurice Leonard, a Jew whose father changed his name and who manages to thrive in pre-World War II WASP society. When Maurice falls for Dorothy, her powerful father makes him the following offer: "I like you, and if you will go away today and stay away from Dorothy, I'll give you a boost when the right time comes." The pact consummated, Maurice goes to work for a Gentile law firm. Twisting fate delivers Dorothy into his arms; she becomes more Jewish than he, and, to Maurice's distress, their son wants to change the family name once again--this time back to its original form.

In a story entitled "Polyhymnia, Muse of Sacred Song," a Catholic society woman suffers over her daughter's engagement to a Protestant; she is overjoyed when the daughter is killed, because her soul has been saved. In the same story a great deal is made of a wealthy dilettante's so-called "heretical" novel--which the author eventually destroys in order to preserve his standing in the community.

In "Hephaestus, God of Newfangled Things," the story turns on the spiritual miseries suffered by a late-marrying architect. His new wife persuades him to abandon artistic integrity by designing "modern" houses rather than sticking to his particular--and not very popular--style. His mother compounds his despair by reminding him that artists "could do anything they liked with their lives, so long as the art always came first."

"Athene, Goddess of the Brave" is about a man who has made some questionable moral decisions as a youth, and is shamed for life after he saves himself from drowning in a marine disaster by getting into a lifeboat dressed in a woman's fur coat and hat filched from an empty stateroom. This is a story that begs out loud to be treated humorously, but even here, Auchincloss does not forsake the high serious mode that characterizes both his voice and its limitations.

All the stories in this collection draw the reader close to people who seem to be battling their own psyches over matters that--viewed objectively and with contemporary eyes--don't have all that much moral voltage. Auchincloss performs the verbal equivalent of a visual artist who turns out pictures indistinguishable from those of a 19th-Century painter. All the people in the paintings wear "period" dress and behave with 19th-Century decorum; they are faithful imitations without contemporary gloss or comment.

Auchincloss's language, world view and subject matter seem to be in a time warp--so much so that he often sounds like a parody of Henry James or Edith Wharton, as in the following description: "Heloise was not so much beautiful as exquisite. Her blond hair and wide opaque eyes and pale luminous skin might have evoked a sense of serenity had they not been balanced by her darting gestures and the vivid mobility of her facial expression, which announced the accomplished maitresse de maison , and by the low musical voice that constituted so perfect an instrument for her fine intelligence."

But there's a difference between writing about people who live by obsolete codes and writing in their emotional and verbal idiom. What Auchincloss delivers is an exact imitation rather than an inflected narrative--as if he were unaware of that most useful of contemporary takes on experience: irony. So the figures in Auchincloss's well-crafted stories seem more like archaic dolls performing an archaic dance than they do real men and women with urgent emotional business to transact.

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