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Book Review

A Modern-Day Twist on the Social Conflicts of 'Great Gatsby'

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF PLAY by Caitlin Macy; Random House $24.95, 333 pages


Reading Caitlin Macy's novel, "The Fundamentals of Play," one can't help wondering whether the author deliberately set out to write an updated version of "The Great Gatsby" or whether the similarities of structure, characters, theme and tone are just coincidental. Once again, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, we meet a brash, nouveau riche young man infatuated with a featureless, carefree, old-money rich girl. Once again, the story is narrated by a man who knows them both. Once again, there's a lot of drinking and partying, not to mention a good deal of speculation about the mysterious allure of people who have inherited money rather than earned it.

"The Fundamentals of Play" is set in and around New York in the 1980s. Recent college graduates like our narrator, George Lenhart, work "hundred-hour weeks in fabric-upholstered cubicles" on Wall Street. Or, like George's old friend from boarding-school days, Kate Goodenow, they have jobs at Sotheby's. These well-connected 20-somethings actually look forward to growing older: to waking up one morning and finding themselves in the shoes of their bosses and their parents. At this point in time, Wall Street is active but has not yet been hit by the mania of the 1990s. Cell phones are still a novelty. And the Internet is a futuristic-sounding idea few ordinary people have heard of and even fewer understand.

One person who understands all about it is George's old Dartmouth classmate Harry Lombardi, who's already made a bundle and is about to become even wealthier. A clumsy, prematurely balding fellow from a middle-class Catholic background, computer-smart Harry never seemed to fit in with his preppy classmates. As George puts it, "He didn't speak the language. Either that or he wasn't listening." Both Harry and George were scholarship students. George, however, comes from an "old" family that lost its money but not its social prestige. Thus George, unlike Harry, is accepted by the set. Yet at the same time, he's encumbered by a sense of gratitude toward them for graciously considering him one of them even though his family is no longer rich.

Now the newly rich Harry is back on the scene, trying in his direct yet awkward way to ingratiate himself with the old crowd. The person who interests him most is Kate. Her main attraction, we're told, resides in her very lack of special qualities: the way in which she seems a generic type rather than an individual. She's blond but not beautiful, pleasant but not charming, reasonably intelligent but far from brilliant. Bland, careless and infinitely self-confident, she epitomizes her old-money social background.

When Harry sets his sights on her, Kate seems to be settling into a matter-of-fact relationship with a man from her set, Chat Wethers. But, as she hints to George, she's not all that eager to settle down with Chat after all. Poor George, always the hesitant conservative, misses what may be his big opportunity with her. Harry is there to step into the breach. But what George knows--and Harry does not--is that winning Kate's hand does not necessarily mean winning her heart.

George realizes that his attachment to Kate and company is based on very little and probably has more to do with his own lack of substance than with any special qualities of theirs: "They weren't scintillating conversationalists; they weren't talented. . . . They certainly weren't hip. . . . They weren't even rich-rich--not as rich goes in New York. . . . But there was something about them." That "something" has a lot to do with their complacency, which George does his best to emulate. Appalled by what lies beneath that complacency, yet unwilling to lose touch with this world of entitlement and insouciance, George becomes the ambivalent narrator of a tragic story that he's not yet wise enough to understand.

In this, her first novel, Macy maintains firm control over her story and characters; at times, one feels, there is something almost a little too studied and deliberate in the way she works out her themes. But this is a noteworthy debut nonetheless.

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