Your Memories, They’re All That’s Left You: Wise Men

02/27/2013 4:00 AM |

Wise Men
By Stuart Nadler

(Little Brown/Hachette)

This debut novel is a strange, fascinating, multi-faceted mélange of fathers and sons, racial tension, obsession, memory, love, and ultimately death. And it’s stunning. Told in three parts in three time periods, the novel opens with a plane crash. It’s 1947. A Boston Airways plane bound for New York nosedives in Narrangansett Bay in Rhode Island, killing all of its 60 passengers. This turns out to be the single defining moment in the lives of Arthur Wise and his son, Hilly.

Arthur, a lawyer, ends up representing the families of the flight’s victims. His lawsuit captures the public’s attention, and propels him to become the wealthiest and most famous lawyer in the country. Five years later, Arthur moves his wife and Hilly (now 17) to a summer home on Cape Cod. By this point, Arthur’s success has exacerbated his worst qualities—his arrogance, conceit, bloodlust, and most of all his prejudices. The Wise family employs an African-American caretaker, Lem Dawson, and Hilly takes pity on him because of how cruelly his father treats him. Lem introduces Hilly to his beautiful niece, Savannah, and the two share an innocent, fleeting summer romance. And then everything changes—a secret Arthur’s been hiding threatens to be told, and Lem is quickly fired and sent to prison. The novel then leaps ahead to 1972 to find Hilly fixated on tracking down Savannah—to apologize, to atone, to be with her, he’s not exactly sure.

Given Nadler’s pedigree—MFA in writing; multiple fellowships; a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation; he’s even been a contestant on Jeopardy!—you might assume his writing would lean toward the studied and stuffy. But no—Nadler’s prose is honest, open, achingly tender and, above all, compulsively readable. The book’s elegiac final passages, again on Cape Cod in the present day, are devastating in a way that begets reconsideration of everything that came before. Nadler shows us that if, by the end of our lives, our memories are all that we have, that can be comforting. And not.