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Book Review

Money and Privilege Can't Ease Characters' Moral Dilemmas

THE ANNIVERSARY, And Other Stories; by Louis Auchincloss; Houghton Mifflin $25, 192 pages

July 30, 1999|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just as the late Wallace Stegner's achievements as a fiction writer were slighted by literary America because he was a Westerner, so too has Louis Auchincloss been denied the highest accolades because he writes about money. More specifically, about people who have plenty of it. But, just as regional prejudices have been largely overcome in the case of Stegner, so too are class prejudgments being set aside in Auchincloss' favor. He can at last be recognized as one of the century's very best American writers.

His characters are the men and women of upper-class New York--at work, at play, swept up by romance, engaged with their families. The very ordinariness of Auchincloss' characters' preoccupations is enough to set him apart from many contemporary novelists. Though mostly rich, his characters, like the rest of us, have daily jobs to go to and pressing family relationships.

Auchincloss' novels and stories (this is the octogenarian writer's 39th book of fiction) would be merely the pleasant tales of privileged lives--except for the telling thing: Nearly all of his tales turn on points of honor. In these nine previously unpublished stories, Auchincloss' characters are faced with moral questions that might, to an onlooker, seem trivial, but in fact are vexing and pressing.

A comfortable Episcopal priest in Westchester County has to make a toast to his wife at their 25th wedding anniversary party. Can he, in honesty, thank her for those 25 years when, in fact, from the ninth to the 14th years of their marriage she had been living with another man? In this title story, "The Anniversary," the clergyman does not fudge his dilemma or flinch from its demands, but faces it and acts accordingly. This directness is typical of Auchincloss. To his principal characters, honor matters. In a common Auchincloss situation, the question is: In this situation, what is right conduct?

Auchincloss' fiction is gratifying to his readers because--most of the time--his characters make the right choices, and both they and their companions benefit. Thus, in "The Anniversary" even the wife is in the end grateful for her husband's startling toast.

Auchincloss is a lawyer, and he writes of the law and lawyers with affection and insight. In "DeCicco v. Schweizer" he could be speaking of himself when he attributes to his narrator a delight in the mellifluous prose of Judge Benjamin Cardozo. Of one of Cardozo's opinions, he writes, as if speaking for himself: "Did not fiction and law come together in this opinion, not as antagonists (as I had foolishly once viewed them), but rather as partners to investigate and even make sense out of the human condition?"

Auchincloss has not lost his sensitivity to the moral universe of contemporary America. In "The Devil and Guy Lansing," the hero-narrator is an Episcopal priest, with the usual doubts about the faith, who becomes the head of a famous Northeastern boys' school and makes it coeducational, only to have the expected sexual scandals emerge. At the end, he tells his former friend and mentor, "I don't think I believe in either God or the devil, but I seem to live in constant fear of both."

In three of the collection's stories, Auchincloss examines the 19th century roots of the New York society into which he and his characters were born. In "The Facts of Fiction," a woman abandoned in the 1890s by her mother for a lover takes her revenge on the world by writing a scandalous and less than profound novel about her husband's wealthy New York family. In "The Virginia Redbird," a girl from a Virginia family impoverished by the Civil War tries for happiness by marrying into another rich New York family. And in "The Veterans," two members of the Harvard class of 1852 live in the shadow of their having spent the Civil War years in Europe, one as a valued diplomat, the other as a shirker. In these tales, as in the others, Auchincloss handsomely makes sense of the messy human condition.

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