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Auchincloss (Tales of Yesteryear, 1994, etc.) tells the saga of the American Century as only he knows how--through a fictional memoir by someone well poised to witness the high social dimension of political events. The world of Oscar Fairfax includes many of those who shape our history--religious leaders, Wall Street lawyers, industrial tycoons, New Deal ""brain-trusters"" and not-so-innocent artists. Writing in 1975, Oscar fancies himself something of a 20th-century Henry Adams, a man of privilege expected to make his way in the ""great world"" even as he chronicles its decline. Far more realistic than Adams, and less pretentious, Oscar nevertheless shares the same sort of pride in his ancestry. Descended from a prerevolutionary British peer, he grows up with the Episcopal Bishop of New York as his maternal grandfather, a man who, more practical than pious, dedicates himself to a monument--a cathedral--that his son-in-law considers unnecessary and vain. Oscar's worldly father nevertheless sends his son to St. Augustine's, where the boy learns ""the charm of belonging to the establishment"" even as he begins discerning certain hypocrisies. At Yale, he befriends the social-climbing romantic egoist Danny Winslow, a novelist who pursues his art regardless of the consequences. Later, at the Paris office of his father's firm, the now-married dilettante grows further disillusioned with aestheticism, thanks partly to the wise Edith Wharton, who makes a cameo here. Then, back in the States, Oscar chronicles the Oedipal struggle between a right-wing Supreme Court Justice and his New Dealer son. Time and again, Oscar learns that acts of charity don't always have the desired effect; and if his own intentions aren't as selfless as he'd like to think, he knows, good Protestant that he is, that the deed is more important than the motive. Many of Auchincloss's familiar themes, settings, and types come together in this perfect character study--all the more profound for its modesty and measure.

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 1995
Page count: 225pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin