A Careerist's Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation
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Lapham (Hotel America, 1995, etc.), adept cosmopolite, elegant essayist, and longtime Harper’s editor, provides a high-class self-helper appropriate to our times” contemporaneously Menckenite, sardonic, and withering. In a felicitous introductory essay—one that is destined, if there is any literary justice, to be anthologized widely—Lapham deconstructs Horatio Alger to reveal the hero’s true nature as sycophant. He expands on the pervasive “courtier spirit” that infects society, with acolyte tycoons “bowing and smiling in eight or nine different directions, forever turning, like a compass needle or a weather vane, into the wind of new money.” Then, usually in a couple of effective paragraphs, he advises careerists on the make, like an observant Dutch uncle. He offers sage counsel on more or less a hundred important topics from Appearances (“promote the impression that you are very busy, never out of touch with Rupert Murdoch or Michael Eisner”) and Adultery (“in some social circles . . . it is still considered polite to seduce the person next to whom one finds oneself seated at dinner,” but, he suggests, exchange business cards first) to Gravitas (“think of yourself as a speech by Alan Greenspan or a trunk by Louis Vuitton”) and Wit (“nearly always ill-advised”). The brief, epigrammatic homilies, pithy as Proverbs, are clearly words to the wise guys at the close of a particularly unwise century. Lapham assumes the stance of a latter-day Lord Chesterfield, a modern Ben Franklin, a ’90s Dale Carnegie. For some, unaccustomed to the study of the upper echelons or without the requisite amour propre, the hilarity may seem below current slapstick standards. But for those anxious to insinuate themselves into the privileged class and for those who care about American cultural sociology, here is a perceptive and funny critique. Lapham has a pointed wit, and he applies it surgically to contemporary society. He’s written a pleasing little book just in time for the eager graduates, class of ’99. (Author tour)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-42605-1
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1999