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SCHMIDT DELIVERED by Louis Begley, Alfred A. Knopf $25, 292 pages


December 17, 2000

The novel of manners -- in which a recognizably bourgeois world is held up to the light and examined for flaws that might escape notice under less intense scrutiny -- is a specialized taste, requiring a certain level of equanimity in its readers. Its gently skewering style is best enjoyed in a state of emotional and physical repose; too much ontological angst in the reader, in other words, and the fun will seem not only frivolous but beside the point. Because such novels presuppose an intentionality, an inherent purpose, at work in the universe, their ideal audience is made up of contented members of the status quo, connoisseurs of life's small comforts and subtler pleasures. Although an implicit awareness of society's more grievous failings hovers around the edges of these narratives, they fit into the tradition of urbane satire -- founded, one might say, on the precept that observing well is the best revenge -- rather than that of a tough-minded realism or angry sendup. Readers are free to immerse themselves in whatever havoc is let loose, secure in the knowledge that a classical sense of order will reassert itself by the last page.

The practitioners of this form of fiction have often been women. There is the peerless Jane Austen, of course, with her magician-like talent for pulling harmonious resolutions out of a hat. In the modern era, Elizabeth Bowen was particularly skilled at evoking the tempest-in-a-teacup tizzy that marks the genre, although her vision was darker than many. Contemporary writers include Muriel Spark and Alison Lurie, who, in their different ways, poke at the risible assumptions that characterize all self-contained, privileged worlds. But there has always existed a small coterie of male writers who share the preoccupations of the novel of manners: the gimlet-eyed Evelyn Waugh, the underappreciated British writer Henry Green and, in our own time, Louis Auchincloss, who carries aloft the banner of the old guard.

In recent years, there has been another voice on the scene -- one that has infused this hidebound, somewhat predictable genre with an unsettling energy. The belief that the younger the novelist the more subversive the literary impulse is an almost axiomatic one, but sometimes it takes a late starter to shed the anxiety of influence and ruffle some feathers. Louis Begley, a senior partner at a venerable New York City law firm, published his acclaimed first novel, ''Wartime Lies,'' in 1991 at the age of 57. The book centers on the fate of Maciek, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish boy living in Warsaw in 1939; together with his Aunt Tania, Maciek succeeds in dodging the long shadow of the Holocaust by passing himself off as an Aryan and staying on the run. Despite its title, which suggests a work of the imagination rather than literal documentation, ''Wartime Lies'' clearly drew on autobiographical details and was often referred to as a memoir-in-disguise rather than a novel. Already with this first effort, then, Begley upended the simple literary conventions by which we presume to pin labels on elusive and shifting material. Although his subsequent books departed radically from the subject matter of this first one, its underlying theme -- which is the contingent and fungible nature of identity, including the identity of the writer -- continued to appear in other guises.

In Begley's new novel, ''Schmidt Delivered,'' we meet up again with Alfred Schmidt, Esq. -- better known as Schmidtie -- the aging, defiantly bigoted antihero of his previous novel, ''About Schmidt.'' Schmidt, a recently retired widower who has sold his Fifth Avenue apartment and taken up permanent residence in his summer house in Bridgehampton, disapproves of affirmative action, pushy Jews, blue-collar locals who aspire beyond their station and the general egalitarian drift of contemporary life. In the earlier book, he has to adapt himself to the impingements of an alien reality: his daughter, Charlotte, the beneficiary of French and riding lessons, a graduate of Brearley and Harvard, has mutated into an increasingly hostile ''iron-pumping yuppie'' who does public relations for a tobacco company. Even more disturbingly, she has become engaged to Jon Riker, ''the vulgar boy'' Schmidt recommended for partnership at his white-shoe law firm, despite Riker's being of the Jewish persuasion. But much to his own and our surprise, Schmidt proves that he is not just another of ''the sunset people,'' doomed to live out his life nursing his bourbon, staring into his memories. By the end of ''About Schmidt,'' he has become involved with Carrie, a sexy Puerto Rican waitress who is younger than his daughter, and he appears to be on the verge of entering his twilight years as an almost tolerant man.

Begley is nothing if not cleareyed, however, and character will out. In ''Schmidt Delivered'' he serves up a largely unreconstructed Schmidtie, his newfound ardor for Carrie, his dusky-skinned, live-in ''child mistress'' notwithstanding. (Indeed, this dried-up husk of a ''fuddy-duddy retired gent'' with his ''geriatric caresses'' has the sexual interest, if not the stamina, of a 20-year-old stud -- his ''little guy,'' as Carrie facetiously calls it, almost always at the ready.) Schmidt is still resolutely committed to a disdainful, taxonomic view of humanity, whether it be ''half-breeds'' like his own lover, waiters with ''overly familiar manners,'' ''queers putting on Off Broadway plays for queers,'' psychiatrists who babble about ''empowering,'' ''black teenage girls'' who ''screw up on the cash register'' and Arabs and Jews with their ''odious rhetoric.'' (Schmidt prefers, understandably, to think of it in more fastidious terms: ''Even when it came to Arabs, his dislikes were individualized; they weren't racial prejudice. He had absolutely nothing against King Hussein.'') Although he is as isolated and lonely as ever, repairing to a nightly intake of alcohol in order to ''deaden the sense of desolation,'' Schmidt's companionship is sought after by his high-flying neighbor in East Hampton, the ''colossally rich'' Michael Mansour. Mansour, an ''eerily brutal and bright'' Jewish financier with dubious connections, invites him to frequent lunches and dinners, where finger bowls are de rigueur and a bodyguard named Jason provides on-the-spot shoulder massages. The oafish Mansour speaks bluntly to this reserved, quintessential Wasp, emphasizing the folly of Schmidt's besotted arrangement: ''The question is, Are you kidding yourself or her? Maybe you think you're some sort of Michael Jordan in the sack?''

Turning a deaf ear, Schmidt continues to inhabit his delusions, insisting on viewing Carrie as a ''fine, loyal girl'' (although she seems to have slept with every man in sight) and dreaming of making an honest woman out of her (although she has coyly sidestepped his proposals of marriage). In the effort to keep Carrie happy, he heats his pool, which he prefers to keep on the cold side, and plies his ''savage virgin goddess'' with a sultan's gifts, ranging from his wife's gold scarab brooch to a ''gorgeous ruby-red silk man's bathrobe made up for her by a shirtmaker in the place Vendme'' to a ''little'' BMW for her to tootle around in. But it is to no avail. Carrie is busy pursuing more tempting offers under Schmidt's nose: she has a brief flirtation with Mansour in New York, and eventually takes up with the cleft-chinned Jason, who has the ''pectorals of a discobolus.''

Schmidt is so smitten -- and his wish to ignore the mounting troubles involving his daughter, Charlotte, who, as ''the Jew's wife,'' has to face up to the fact of her husband's extramarital dalliance as well as the extralegal exploits that have cost him his partnership at Schmidt's old firm, is so strong -- that he agrees to play the willing cuckold. The exploitative Carrie, now pregnant, moves both Jason and her previous boyfriend, a druggy drifter, into the premises, and even convinces the ordinarily pragmatic Schmidt to underwrite an unlikely-sounding business venture. But for the time being, at least, things are looking up: Charlotte and Jon eventually work their problems out, the money issues between Schmidt and his daughter are smoothed over and Schmidt travels the world in style, having decided to accept Mansour's offer of a cushy position as the head of a philanthropic foundation.

True to form, ''Schmidt Delivered'' concludes with more than a bit of authorial sleight of hand. The mess of human entanglement is cleaned up, the cobwebs of deceit and deception are swept back under the bed, and the place is set to rights once again. And yet, when we close the book, we are left with a subliminal sense of unease of the sort such novels don't usually produce -- as though we weren't sure where the author stood, or where we were meant to put ourselves. In Begley's adroitly conceived variation on the novel of manners, it's left purposely ambiguous whether all's well that doesn't end quite well -- or whether, in fact, the thinness of the ice Schmidt walks on will crack under future pressures.

Meanwhile, Begley has written a richly nuanced concoction, cut by a lethally dry wit, about the way we live now as reflected in the distorting fun-house mirror of the way we lived then, in that Eloise-at-the-Plaza moment when everyone stayed on his side of the class divide. He gives us an unblinking bird's-eye view of a tiny world plagued by excess leisure and the demanding upkeep of luxury -- a world that has more typically been drawn in the broad, breathless strokes of prime-time, ''Dynasty''-derived television, the better to gratify the fantasies of those mired in the daily grind: See the rich! See how they play! See how the butler pours the breakfast juice into crystal goblets! Armed with insider information about the controlling familial maneuvers and byzantine financial strategems of the wealthy, Begley imparts a bracingly sour wisdom to his descriptions of the conclaves where the moneyed and powerful meet and share their avarice, need and obsessive anxiety about gift versus estate taxes.

''Schmidt Delivered'' is marred by occasional false notes and whole patches of unconvincing dialogue. There are some unsatisfyingly monochromatic characters as well -- the most egregious example being the awful Charlotte, who one would have thought had fulfilled her awfulness quotient in the first installment of the Schmidt saga. In the ungrateful daughter sweepstakes, she could easily give Lear's rapacious twosome, Goneril and Regan, a run for their money, and one wonders why her father doesn't simply write her off -- or, more effectively, out of his will. But none of these flaws detract from the book's singular achievement, which is to quietly nudge the novel of manners in a more provocative direction. Begley does this in part by filtering his perceptions through the sensibility of an invented counterself -- the person he might have been but for the grace of -- and in part by rendering a superficially unlikable protagonist with the same humanizing fullness other authors save for likable ones. In doing so, he is staking out risky literary territory -- albeit in his own casually elegant fashion. Resisting the temptation to create an appealing character we may all secretly long to be, Begley has set himself the much more difficult hurdle of describing the cramped inner life of a person we may all secretly fear we are -- or given the right circumstances, might turn into. The interesting thing about Schmidtie is that he doesn't want to be Schmidtie either; he is his own worst self, but it is the self he is doomed to inhabit. In giving us a penetrating -- but not entirely merciless -- picture of this complex man, Begley succeeds in unsettling some of our complacencies, and illuminating the straitened and ungenerous perspective with which we frequently approach the world around us. I'm still not sure I'd want Schmidtie as a dinner companion -- he reminds me too much of one of those men you might expect to find sitting on the co-op board of some prissy Park Avenue building that prides itself on turning down single women, Jews, gays and other suspicious characters -- but Begley has made me curious enough about him to want to read more about the renegade opinions and touching glimpses of vulnerability that lurk behind his inhospitable facade.

Daphne Merkin, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of ''Dreaming of Hitler,'' an essay collection.

Published: 12 - 17 - 2000 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 14


Copyright 2000, New York Times   

*Reprinted by permission of The New York Times