Wise Men

  • Stuart Nadler
  • Reagan Arthur Books
  • 352 pp.

Forbidden love and the search for redemption drive this compelling debut novel.

Once in every life there comes that overwhelming, bruising, conflagrative love that consumes a soul, decimates a heart. Usually it’s when you’re young. Usually it’s unreciprocated. And usually it leaves a shadow that stalks the corridors of your psyche long beyond your aching acceptance of fate — and even beyond your ultimate acceptance of fate’s wisdom. In his debut novel, Wise Men, Stuart Nadler writes about such love, but love with the added poignancy of being forbidden. Hilly Wise is white. His amour, Savannah, is black. And it’s post-World War II America.

Hilly’s life changes forever in 1947 when his hard-drinking, ambulance-chasing father, Arthur, capitalizes on a nearby plane crash to launch a fantastically successful career in anti-aviation class-action suits. Hilly’s adolescence becomes an awkward transition from dismal blue-collar deprivation to power-class luxury, while he suffers estrangement from a father whose harshness and crassness are progressively revealed. Hilly falls for the dirt-poor Savannah, the niece of his father’s black help, but a betrayal in which Hilly is at least partially complicit drives them apart. His guilt and the loss of Savannah will haunt Hilly for a lifetime as he searches the country in a vain quest to reunite with his one great love and resolve his failings, old and new. In the end he will reach an angle of repose, but only after a stunning revelation concerning his father.

This is a gently written and compelling multigenerational saga. The characters are vivid and Nadler is at his best in describing their relationships: distant, self-absorbed parents, each with a uniquely banal preoccupation with success; a wondering, alienated, conflicted son who matures to an aimless, uncommitted adult reminiscent of Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. All of them are eventually broken from these fates, but sadly too late. The details of Nadler’s descriptions of postwar America are as evocative as the characters he portrays. The prose is smooth, the drama heartfelt. Despite a couple of minor missteps in the writing (both the scene of Hilly’s and Savannah’s first intimacy and a climactic scene when they meet again late in life suffer some moments of awkward staging), the characters are so sympathetic, the drama so engaging, the feelings so poignant, if you have a heart you will love Wise Men.

Andrew Imbrie Dayton is an author of the multigenerational family saga about Iran, The House That War Minister Built, and is a contributing editor of The Washington Independent Review of Books.

comments powered by Disqus