Note: If you can and wish, please by this book from Battenkill Books (518 677-2515 or email@example.com) or your local independent bookstore. Battenkill Books my local bookstore, takes Paypal and ships anywhere in the world. This review comes as part of my work as the store’s Recommender-In-Chief, where I can be found on Saturdays from 11 to 2 p.m., working the phones, e-mail and the store.
I loved Stuart Nadler’s “Wise Men,” a novel published Little Brown. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years. It hooked me, engrossed me, surprised and engaged me.
This is a story about love, family, race and identity. It begins in Cape Cod in the 1950’s and moves up through the present day, giving the story a bit of a saga feeling, spanning different times and realities.
Hilton Wise, the protagonist, goes to Cape Cod to spend a summer at the family’s new home in fictional Bluepoint when he is 17. He befriends the black “handyman” – Lem Dawson is really an artist – who works at the family’s Cape Cod home for his angry, domineering and bigoted father Arthur, soon to become famous and unspeakably wealthy for his work suing airlines over plane crashes. Arthur becomes as successful as he is arrogant and unfeeling. Young Hilton – they call him “Hilly” befriends Lem, the handyman and falls in love with his outspoken niece Savannah. The results of this flirtation are tragic, even on Cape Cod in pre-civil rights America. It causes a life-long rift between father and son.
Even though Arthur puts millions of dollars in a trust fund for his son, Hilly won’t take a penny of it, working instead as a poorly paid reporter for an obscure Boston newspaper. Hilly covers race in America, scouring the country for racial incidents he can cover and write about. All the while he is looking for Savannah, who has vanished. Hilton wants to find her and explain himself and erase the enormous guilt he feels for what happened to her uncle. He is also haunted by his erotic memories of her.
Hilly is a powerful fictional creation, likeable, idealistic and caught up in a family drama that seems so much bigger than him. He believes his father to be a monster, yet monsters are never entirely what they seem in the hands of good writers, and he never stops loving Arthur, even while fleeing him for most of his life. He eventually tracks Savannah down in a small town in Iowa where he once again has to confront the power of race in America, and the long and powerful reach of his family. Race is a much covered subject in American writing and Nadler brings nothing new to the subject. He does remind us that bigotry wasn’t just about rednecks in the Deep South, but was woven into the fabric of American culture and society. even on snooty Cape Cod. Late in life, Arthur is seriously injured in a plane crash, and Hilton is thrown together with his family in the closest and most intense way. By now, he is married with his own children, still obsessed with Savannah, still looking for her, encountering her in fleeting, sometimes dreamy ways. He is also still trying to come to terms with his famous, cruel and fearsome father.
This isn’t really a story about race. It is a story about family, about love and understanding, about secrets and mysteries. I read it in less than a day, really could not put it down. It’s a wonderful book, elegantly written, beautifully plotted and disturbing without ever being preachy or heavy-handed. And I have to credit Nadler with another thing. I was completely taken by surprise by the ending, it was never given away or foreshadowed in any way. And it made me gasp and tear up. This is a book with great heart. Don’t even try and guess it, you just won’t.
I’m happy to recommend “Wise Men.” It is a masterful work by a writer you will be hearing from again and again.