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SCHMIDT STEPS BACK by Louis Begley Kirkus Star


by Louis Begley

Pub Date: March 16th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-70065-0
Publisher: Knopf

In the third of the Schmidt novels, what had been described as a comedy of manners turns tragic and redemptive.

Updike had Rabbit, Roth has Zuckerman, Richard Ford has Bascombe and Begley has Schmidt. While all serve a similar purpose, to illuminate American life and culture through the passages of one man’s maturation, the return of “Schmidtie” represents a significant advance from preceding volumes (Schmidt Delivered, 2000, etc.). An even longer interval has passed in Schmidt’s life than between books, since the protagonist readers knew in his early 60s is now 78 (it’s hard to imagine Jack Nicholson continuing in this role). Now deep into his second career, as a retired lawyer turned foundation head, he is much more concerned with topical events—wars and terrorism and politics (he loves Obama). And he has found new love with a woman who is more age appropriate, merely 15 years his junior (in contrast with the promiscuous waitress, younger than his daughter, who continues to play a key role in his life). Artistically and thematically, this is the most ambitious novel in the Schmidt cycle, also the longest, and it requires familiarity with the earlier volumes to appreciate its richness. It ties the ends left loose at the conclusion of the last—his relationships with his daughter and his former lover, and the anticipation of the two babies that will make him a grandfather (and perhaps a father as well). Yet chronologically this isn’t a mere continuation of the Schmidt narrative, but one that finds him reflecting (“stepping back”), coming to terms with some pivotal episodes that were either downplayed or omitted from the first two novels. He has arrived at a place where he feels he has “at last grown up,” possibly capable of a “rebirth.” Yet, given the course his life has taken and the stage at which he has arrived, he compares himself to Lear and Job, facing what is likely his “last chance.”

The good news is that Schmidt still feels he has 10 years to live, which likely means at least one more novel.