A dry martini of a collection from an author who, in his 57th book, voices his characters with a precision and care almost unheard of in a sloppy age.
While the stories here span the better part of the 20th century, they nevertheless hew to Auchincloss’s familiar aristocratic settings (Her Infinite Variety, 2000, etc.), generally New York’s Knickerbocker elite. “All That May Become a Man” is set in the Vollard clan, who for the most part occupy themselves with living lives—on the hunt or in war—of a dangerousness that would almost make Teddy Roosevelt quake. The narrator, who disappoints his father by avoiding service in WWI, is the sole man of the family without an adventurous spirit. Years later, his mother tells him to have the courage simply to admit that he was afraid to die, and refuses to let him off the hook: “No one is born fearless. Your father made himself a hero by grit and will power. And don’t you ever dare to take it from him!” “The Marriage Broker” manages to tell a story of arranged marriage amid the wealthy classes without resorting to the commonplace moral dilemmas. A somewhat more modern piece, “The Justice Clerk,” is a recounting of a man’s journey from being an enthusiastic clerk for a Supreme Court justice during the New Deal to being a man disgusted with both the right (the justice) and the left (his Stalinist wife); he determines to “lose myself in the blessed impersonality of taxes.” Praiseworthy in so delectable a volume are its wit and economy, but equally deserving of mention is Auchincloss’s approachability. While his characters dwell in the upper latitudes of wealth and breeding, he doesn’t give readers entry to this world in a voyeuristic fashion, so there’s little in the way of breathless recountings of fabulous parties, dinners, and journeys.
Telling stories about a privileged world, Auchincloss doesn’t belie the intellectual and material luxuriousness his characters live in, but neither does he ever stoop to revel in them.