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The social ladder's upper rungs

The Young Apollo and Other Stories Louis Auchincloss Houghton Mifflin: 238 pp., $24

April 17, 2006|Carmela Ciuraru | Special to The Times

AN interviewer once asked the British author Evelyn Waugh why he had no significant or sympathetic working-class characters in his fiction. "I don't know them, and I'm not interested in them," he said. One might ask the same of Louis Auchincloss, whose preoccupation with power, affluence and rarefied society is evident in dozens of books, from his first novel "The Indifferent Children" (written in 1947 under the pseudonym Andrew Lee), "Portrait in Brownstone" (1962) through "East Side Story" in 2004. (Even his titles are redolent of old money.) This subject matter, along with the prolific author's fussy style and astute exploration of his characters' complex inner lives, have rightfully earned him a literary place alongside Edith Wharton and Henry James -- both clearly huge influences on his work. As for the working class? Leave them to another writer.

His latest collection, "The Young Apollo and Other Stories," covers familiar terrain, yet Auchincloss is such a master that each of these stories is a pleasure.

In the title story, set in 1918, an elderly Washington historian named Ralph ponders the request of an acquaintance, an influential senator, to "compose a short life" of his son Lionel, dead at 31 of heart failure. Ralph has never liked the father, who is "as deeply conservative as a Republican senator from Rhode Island can get; he is shrewd, raspingly sarcastic, and basically mean." But Ralph was always fond of Lionel, an aspiring poet, who defied his father's wish for him to become a lawyer or politician. "I was the kind of avuncular mentor he had never had," he says of Lionel. As Ralph contemplates whether to write Lionel's biography, whose printing the senator has promised to pay for, he comes to realize why there's no question that he must do it.

In "The Artist's Model," bohemians bump up against the upper class as well. The story opens with a successful middle-aged painter named John Eppes in his West 41st Street studio with his portrait sitter, Mrs. Harold Ames, "whose husband owned almost as many city blocks in Manhattan as Colonel John Jacob Astor." This mundane encounter leads Eppes to wonder about his fame, revealing his insecurity and bitterness about attacks from younger art critics who've said "that he was slick and superficial, that his skill in detail was mere trickery, and that his flattering portraits of society matrons were fashion plates." When his sitter confesses a startling truth about her marriage, Eppes must decide between representing the gilded facade or the truth behind it, serving his own reputation or that of the society lady.

The conflict between duty and ambition -- whether in marriage, career or privileged social circles -- is a theme throughout these stories, most of which are set in the early- to mid-20th century. Some lives result in tragedy; others settle for superficial complacency. Compromise is common, as in "Her Better Half," in which New York heiress Evalina Lane stays with her ambitious, philandering husband, Thaddeus Warwick, out of duty and necessity. He married her only after the love of his life left him, and his cheating seems almost inevitable. But as Evalina's best friend advises her, "Don't upset the apple cart. You'll never get a better one."

With each story, Auchincloss examines the often painful contrast in the freedom wealth affords even as it confines and obsesses people. The suffocating aspects of privilege are rendered most fascinatingly in "A Case History," in which the scion to a Pittsburgh steel fortune, born just after the Great War, grapples with his homosexuality in a milieu and an era utterly hostile to his sexual orientation. AIDS becomes part of the story; this is about as close to contemporary as Auchincloss gets, but even then, he doesn't linger there.

The author is blithely uninterested in the modern age of cellphones and laptop computers, as he proves again in his latest fiction. Yet his old-fashioned sensibility remains charming, even refreshing in an era of literati hipsters. And perhaps there is a lesson to take from his work: Afflictions and unhappiness, even among the very rich, never seem to change much anyway.


Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of six anthologies of poetry, including "Beat Poets" and "Solitude."

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