Money and race poison a father–son relationship in this frequently tense first novel that follows a story collection (The Book of Life, 2011).
Arthur Wise goes from being an impoverished ambulance-chasing lawyer to a very rich man when, in 1952, he wins a class-action suit against an airline after a deadly crash. There is bad blood, though, between Arthur and his 17-year-old son, Hilly, the narrator. The teenager is already furious over being uprooted from his New Haven high school. Things only get worse at their new (second) home on Cape Cod. The live-in caretaker is a black man, Lem Dawson. Arthur, grandson of a Polish Jew but a racist bully, makes his life hell. When Hilly meets Lem’s niece Savannah, he’s smitten. She lives in a shack with her father, Charles, a no-good gambler and baseball player. Hilly tries to give them stuff his folks don’t need; here Nadler does a fine job painting his well-intentioned naïveté. Hilly barely reaches first base with his beloved when their world collapses. The boy discovers Lem poking through his father’s papers and, under intense cross-questioning, betrays him. Arthur goes ballistic and presses charges. After the novel’s most successful and emotionally charged section, we fast-forward to 1972. Hilly is a reporter for a Boston newspaper, covering the race beat. He has a girlfriend, Jenny, but is still obsessed with the memory of Savannah. Jenny tells him, correctly, that he has a “rescue complex.” In the final overstuffed section, it’s 2008.
This is a novel of character, persuasive in the telling, less so in retrospect but still impressive; Nadler is a born storyteller.