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FICTION

A Well-Behaved Bigot : ABOUT SCHMIDT. By Louis Begley (Alfred A. Knopf: $23, 320 pp.)

September 15, 1996|Thomas Hines | Thomas Hines is a writer and attorney

For most of his life, Albert Schmidt had it all. Rising to partnership at the ancient and venerable New York law firm of Wood & King during the golden age of the American Century, Schmidt did all he was expected to do: He married a promising editor, entertained in his Fifth Avenue apartment, sent his only daughter to private schools and Harvard, and "weekended" and "summered" at an old family home in Bridgehampton. It was a life devoted to taste, manners and, above all, to the quiet and systematic business of the WASP ascendancy--"exclusive" in every sense of the word.

But now, at 60, something has gone terribly, if quietly, wrong for Schmidt. Early retirement has left him without purpose. The sale of his Manhattan apartment and a permanent move to his summer house have left him isolated. The death of his wife has shaken his faith not only in happiness but even in his ability to cobble together some sort of bearable existence. And, as Louis Begley's fourth novel opens, comes Schmidt's coup de grace: His only daughter announces her impending marriage to one of Schmidt's former proteges, an attorney Schmidt increasingly cannot abide and stranger, still for Schmidt, a Jew. All of which brings to the fore the unconscious assumptions and prejudices Schmidt has lived by even as his family falls by the wayside in the modern world.

Popular fiction has long tended to ignore the intricacies of old-world corporate America. While the outsider and the corporate "bad guy" are staples in the stories we tell each other, those quietly at work behind the mergers and acquisitions that shape our world remain almost invisible. Yet for more than a decade now Begley has chronicled this world glimpsed only occasionally in the alcoves of Manhattan. While this has often evoked comparisons to James and Wharton, these are not mere novels of manners. Instead, Begley uses his intimate attunement to the language, habits and assumptions of the upper classes to reveal the tiny cracks in the system and to excavate the subtle cruelties and disarray that lie quietly beneath the surface.

And for Schmidt, that disarray is everywhere. The title of this novel can be taken in two ways because the story is really concerned with what has happened around Schmidt in the years since he last looked up from his desk. About Schmidt, the corridors of power and the "right" vacation towns have moved. About Schmidt, the manners and mores of the corporate classes have coarsened and changed, and the composed, well-rounded sophisticates in his firm have been replaced by drones devoted to billable hours.

Even Schmidt's own unwitting success has cut him off from the younger generations; as his real estate has appreciated by 50 times over the years, his own daughter cannot afford to accept the gift of Schmidt's house, and towns like Bridgehampton have become unaffordable to the young, leaving them strangely cut off from the world of the present.

All of which has rendered the world unknowable to Schmidt and strained even his tenuous links to other people. Thus, just as Schmidt cannot understand his daughter's decision to work as a public relations flack for the tobacco industry, a profession Schmidt finds both "mercenary and parasitic," his daughter finds her father distant, narrow-minded and unapproachable. Similarly, although his prospective son-in-law is a young partner at Schmidt's own Manhattan law firm, Schmidt finds that the qualities now cherished at the firm--namely the ability to gauge each interaction as a cost/benefit transaction--are precisely the qualities Schmidt does not desire to see in a relative.

And even Schmidt's links to his own heart are tenuous. Having spent his entire life hiding his deepest desires beneath a veneer of politesse, Schmidt continues to hide behind logic and legal language, as when he defines away his doggedly-pursued affairs during his marriage by invoking the niceties of contract law, or when he defends his latent anti-Semitism with this simple explanation to himself: Why sit in judgment on emotions when his actions are impeachable? Yet, by the time the novel rockets toward its strange conclusion, even Schmidt begins to feel such answers are no longer workable and can no longer give him the measure of contentment that he needs.

Yet this is also a very funny elegiac. Perhaps Begley's most stunning achievement lies in making Schmidt vividly sympathetic, almost mesmerizing, even as his many sins are laid out before us in devastating detail. Some of the most vivid examples in the book create an air of almost unbearable isolation, as when Schmidt recalls making love with his (literally) unconscious wife or relates the simple, stunningly repressed manner in which Schmidt's affair with the family au pair is resolved. In relating such tales, Schmidt's odd mixture of well-mannered pronouncement and elegant black humor manages to communicate both a world of hurt and a surprising, sometimes shocking, resiliency.

In the end, Begley has created a terribly funny, touching, infuriating and complex character in Schmidt, whose self-deceptions and imprisonment by his own world-view stand not only as a devastating portrait of a disappearing world but also sound a strangely evocative cautionary tale. The world turns. The lies we tell each other are fragile. Our prejudices may be as unconscious and unseen as Schmidt's. And if Schmidt does manage a giddy self-liberation at the end of the novel by making the most unlikely of connections, it is to Begley's credit that we aren't quite sure how to take it, just chagrined that the telling detail, the crystalline and evocative prose has to end.

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