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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

An Emptiness Worse Than Death

MISTLER'S EXIT by Louis Begley; Alfred A. Knopf $22, 206 pages

October 19, 1998|HELLER MCALPIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Thomas Mistler, the antihero of Louis Begley's fifth novel, read "Anna Karenina" as a boy, he impressed his father by sympathizing with Anna's husband, Karenin. His father, an investment banker whose sense of duty kept him from running off with the young Frenchwoman he loved, commented, "That's a very grown-up response, to sympathize with an unattractive man who is in an impossible situation."

Mistler is an unattractive man in an impossible situation. He is a privileged, cultivated advertising mogul born "with a silver spoon stuck firmly in his mouth," who is diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer at 60. If the task Begley set for himself in "Mistler's Exit" was to render Mistler sympathetic, he has failed miserably. Mistler is outwardly successful, primly proper, snobbishly clothes conscious, routinely and somewhat randomly unfaithful to his wife. He is also alienated, sexist, bookish and deeply pessimistic. He feels that even without the cancer, his best years are behind him. In short, Mistler and these other Begley protagonists exhibit none of the stark, powerful, unpitying stalwartness of the little Polish boy and his aunt who escaped the Nazis in Begley's prize-winning first novel, "Wartime Lies."

Begley's achievement is to render the vacuum at the heart of these powerful men in deft prose that is as mannered and intelligent as his characters. His literary influences--Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov--are strong. He has carved as his particular niche the urbane world of the New York-based ruling class of international business and finance. It is a world he knows from his career as a senior partner at the blue chip law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton.

What is most intriguing about Mistler is that he greets the news of his grave illness not with rage or regret or even fear, but with "gaiety" and relief--despite his purported contentment with his general lot. He decides "while he was still at the edge of the no-man's-land, before departing on cancer patrol"--and before telling his wife and son the news--"to give himself a special treat." He sneaks off to Venice, "the one place on Earth where nothing irritated him," for "a paltry 10 days of serene emptiness."

But while serious self-examination reveals far too many examples of emptiness at the core of Mistler's existence, serenity eludes him. In Venice, he stumbles into two bizarre flings featuring the slightly warped, degrading sex that are typical Begley fare. Mistler roams the city and his memory, evoking inevitable twisted associations with the dying dandy in Mann's "Death in Venice." Begley wields his polished, well-groomed prose to make complex connections between Mistler's current adventures and his past.

"Can there be greater pain than remembrance of past sorrow in present misery?" Mistler wonders at one bad moment.

Not all of the sequences work, but the final effect is a stunningly sobering portrait of a profound loneliness that seems more frightening than death.

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