Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wise Men, by Stuart Nadler

Hilly Wise is 17 when his father Arthur, a one-time ambulance chaser, wins a huge air crash liability case, giving the family immense wealth and propelling himself into the role of celebrity attorney specializing in the airline industry. With the winnings from the case, Arthur and his legal partner Robert buy adjoining ocean-front properties on Cape Cod. Along with the house, the Wises inherit the African-American caretaker, Lem Dawson. Arthur, a truly obnoxious character, treats Lem horribly, but Hilly attempts to befriend both Lem and his lovely teenage niece, Savannah. To deflect his father's questions about his flirtation with Savannah, Hilly blurts out that he saw Lem reading pilfered copies of his father's legal papers. Arthur immediately calls the police and has Lem arrested; Lem is murdered in jail while awaiting trial.

Guilt over Lem's death and something of an obsession with his feelings for Savannah shape the direction of Hilly's life. He rejects his father's money and becomes a reporter specializing in stories related to race. All the time he is reporting, he is also searching for Savannah. He eventually finds her in Iowa and, while she is married and he has a live-in girlfriend, they find themselves drawn to each other as they help a runaway teenager and deal with violence directed against Savannah because of her father's gambling debts. However, when Arthur calls Hilly to tell him his girlfriend is pregnant, Hilly leaves Savannah in Iowa and returns to Cape Cod.

In the third section of the book, Hilly is in his 70s; since returning from Iowa, he has lived in the house on Cape Cod, not working, but instead giving away his father's money to good causes. Now widowed, he has four adult daughters.  While his marriage was happy, he still thinks about Savannah and feels guilt about Lem. After Arthur is severely injured, ironically, in  a plane crash and his law partner Robert dies of a heart attack, Hilly and Savannah once again meet, leading to exposure of secrets Arthur has kept from Hilly for more than 50 years--and one of the secrets is quite surprising.

Wise Men would seem to be about thwarted love across racial lines and father-son relationships. But I didn't find that the story gave me any particular insights into either of these themes. Hilly comes across as a rather weak individual, while his father is a boor and Savannah is not well-drawn enough for the reader to understand why Hilly is so obsessed with her (it seems to be more about her as an idea than her as a person). Finally--while I appreciate a good surprise ending--this twist made me feel like everything that came before was just a distraction to set us up for the shock.

Some of the reviews I read suggested this is a "Great American Novel," but I disagree. In fact, I can't recommend Wise Men.

Favorite passage:
Cancer took her but she was gone long before that. Chemotherapy is what kills people sick with a malignant tumor. The person left afterward is not really the person, just the skin and bones. Part of the soul is shed at some point, along with the hair.

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