In Stuart Nadler’s excellent short story “Visiting,” a father drives his mostly estranged son to see his own completely estranged (and abusive) father, then waits petrified in the car while the boy goes inside and talks to the old man. The moment is great tragicomedy and gets at an important truth: often, we can neither break free from nor reconcile with our parents, so we wind up sitting ridiculously in the car, not going anywhere or doing anything.
At its best, Nadler’s debut novel, Wise Men, mines exactly this dynamic. The novel opens in the early 1950s, as Hilly Wise’s father, Arthur Wise, an “average slip-and-fall-and-sue attorney,” has lucked into a plane-crash that he has spun into a class-action lawsuit, making some money for his clients and a great deal of money for himself. Arthur Wise uproots seventeen-year-old Hilly from his happy middle-class life in New Haven and thrusts him into various WASP enclaves where he feels uncomfortable. The family spends the summer of 1952 in a beach house in Bluepoint, Cape Cod. More or less included with this house is a black servant, Lem Dawson. Almost immediately, Arthur exposes himself as an irredeemably racist boor, calling Lem “Boy” over and over again and forcing him to perform arduous and humiliating tasks, notably running documents back and forth between the Wise’s house and that of Arthur’s law partner, Robert Ashley, who lives down the beach.
Arthur’s racism is not handled with subtlety, and occasionally these early scenes recall Mad Men at its self-congratulatory “People-were-so-backward-back-then” worst, but Arthur Wise is very effectively established as the opposite of a wise man, essentially the opposite of Atticus Finch. Given the prominence of Atticus in how Americans think about race, fatherhood, and the law, this is a brilliant idea for a novel. And for much of the first third, the novel fulfills its promise. Disgusted with his father—believing his father to be “a cruel, petty, stupid man”—Hilly clumsily attempts to befriend Lem and falls for Lem’s beautiful niece Savannah, who lives with her father, a destitute former pitcher and current gambler obsessed with his glory days as a player in the Negro Leagues with Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. It looks as though Hilly is going to break free from his father’s grip. But when Hilly catches Lem reading some of the papers that he has been made to carry, Hilly dresses Lem down in repulsively condescending fashion: “I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be reading those papers, Lem. They don’t belong to you.” The encounter escalates until Hilly physically assaults Lem. Hilly know he has acted terribly, but he can’t help himself: “Here was that loyalty again.” Later, Hilly worms out of a confrontation with his father over his budding relationship with Savannah by ratting Lem out, a truly despicable act. (Yes, Lem reported the relationship to Arthur, but the power dynamic renders the two betrayals totally incomparable). Lem is sent to prison, and within a few months he is murdered under mysterious circumstances that seem to have everything to do with Arthur.
Wise Men evokes something profound about race in America, about the way white people often say the right things but retreat at crucial moments into stupid blood loyalties, a dynamic intimately connected to Nadler’s theme of fathers and sons. Unfortunately, the book falters in its later sections, which pick up with Hilly nearing middle age in 1972, and then later in 2008.
In the novel’s final section, Hilly has failed to escape his father’s orbit, totally if still guiltily surrounded by his father’s money. Arthur is now working on behalf of the very airlines he once hounded, but this development does not have much power, since Arthur was never motivated by anything but money. In the final pages, Hilly commits one final and unforgivably vile offense against the long-dead Lem. In old age, Hilly is still horrifically loyal to his father, a fact that cries out for some sort of reckoning. Instead, catastrophically, the novel concludes with an absurdly creaky twist, one that appears intended to humanize Arthur in retrospect—to show him as a victim of his times, just like Lem. Explored fully, this twist might have yielded something rich, but as last-page legerdemain it serves only as an evasion. The novel ends by behaving like Hilly, making excuses and turning a blind eye at exactly the moment that the truth is most necessary.
There are aspects of the novel that beg to be compared with Philip Roth: setting the novel among prosperous Jews in the 1950s cannot help but evoke Goodbye, Columbus, and the broad themes of race and history strongly suggest Roth’s later novels. But there is in Nadler’s well-behaved prose no hint of Roth’s unflinching sentences, of their tendency to circle back again and again to prod his characters’ deepest wounds.
Nonetheless, with Wise Men and his short story collection The Book of Life, Nadler has staked out for himself an immensely promising theme: the way our fathers impose their wisdom on us, and the way we find ourselves falling in line regardless of whether this wisdom is actually wisdom. If Nadler decides to be tougher on his characters, to refuse to throw up smoke that lets them escape through a trap door, there is every reason to believe that this unsatisfying novel will be followed by much better ones.