THE FINAL CLUB by Geoffrey Wolff


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A little bit of Bildungsroman and a whole lot of Princeton make for a ramshackle fifth novel from Wolff, who shines brightest in his nonfiction (The Duke of Deception, Black Sun). A great opening, though: a teen-ager is pulled from sleep by his mother, who's brandishing a Colt .45; should she shoot herself or the kid's father, caught in flagrante? Her son shrugs; he has a chem test in the morning, Eighteen months later, Dad is dead (a lush's death, falling off a barstool), Mom is in the nuthouse, and Nathaniel Clay is leaving Seattle to join Princeton's class of '60, learning on his train ride something about discrimination (Indians in the aisles) but zero about vamps (Diana, a gorgeous apparition in the dining car). Princeton seduces him outright: its natural beauty, its Honor Code, its Mr. Chips-like Professor Hyde, its ""graceful, wised-up boys from great eastern schools,"" including the golden playboy Booth Tarkington Griggs, a future roommate. The fly in the ointment is Bicker, Princeton's selection process for its dining clubs; in 1958, the Jews were weeded out along with the nerds, and the half-Jewish Nathaniel is out in the cold, until rescued by his loyal roommates and made whole again by the nonexclusive Final Club, which the young men leave at dawn ""swooning crazy lovestruck with fellow-love and self-love."" That's the emotional high point--not Nathaniel's subsequent marriage to the barely characterized Polly, nor his extramarital sorties, nor his straggle to be scrupulously honest with his kids, Ginger and Jake. It is Princeton that continues to call the shots, summoning its children back to reunions (the 1970 Final Club reunion gets a lot of play) and then summoning its children's children, as the 1978 admissions committee weighs the applications of Nathaniel's Jake and Booth's Benjamin; the latter (in a dismally contrived ending) are the focus of a 1980 campus tragedy. It is possible to write a novel celebrating a university as a touchstone for adult lives (E.M. Forster did it memorably, with Cambridge, in The Longest Journey), but to work, it needs more of a plot than Wolff has supplied. What we're left with is an okay collection of vignettes, a fussy narrator, and, looming over the action, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 1990
Publisher: Knopf