Hilton “Hilly” Wise is a man defined by the things that went wrong in his life. At least in Stuart Nadler’s novel Wise Men, which he narrates, those are the things he talks about. He is the only child of Arthur Wise, a lawyer who rises to fame and fortune by winning class action lawsuits after plane crashes. Upon this reversal of fortune, he moves his family from their small (but happy!) home in New Haven to new (soon to be unhappy!) homes on Riverside Drive and Cape Cod the year before Hilly leaves for college.
Uncomfortable with his family’s new station, Hilly aligns himself with Lem Dawson, the black servant who essentially comes with the Cape Cod house. Hilly is drawn to Lem because of his loneliness and resentment of his father, who pays and treats Lem poorly, and Lem treats Hilly’s attention with the wariness it deserves. Rather than spend time with his parents’ new smart set of friends, he goes with Lem to meet Lem’s brother-in-law, Charles, and his niece, Savannah, whom he immediately falls for. When Lem tries to put a stop to anything between Hilly and Savannah, Hilly puts a stop to Lem’s employment, with catastrophic consequences.
That summer shapes the rest of Hilly’s life. He is haunted by what he did to Lem, resents his father’s role in it, and his father in general, and regrets losing Savannah.
There is a certain type of book, well-represented in 20th- and 21st-century American literature, that is about Men Handling Things. I can’t define the precise requirements of this genre, but I know that I’ve read this type of book many times over, by anyone from Fitzgerald and Hemingway to the Richards Yates and Ford. And let me be clear, I’ve just named four of my favorite authors. I’m not going to rant against Men Handling Things novels. I mean to say that there are a lot of them.
From the earliest pages of Wise Men, I recognized that this was the type of novel I was reading. This was not an unpleasant sensation in the least, more of an “Ah yes, I see what I’ve got here.” As the book went on, populated with oceans, whales, dolphins, boats, cars, planes, watches, houses, suits, real estate, and liquor — not to mention father issues, race violence, star-crossed lovers, a section about the Midwest, and frequent echoes of Gatsby (by all means, Arthur, stare out at the ocean from your dock) — this feeling did not abate.
I enjoyed this sense of familiarity so much that I can’t say whether I was enjoying the book itself or just the true American, grand tradition of it all. Surely I’m reading a great book, I thought, a rich man with a diamond watch is staring at the ocean while his son looks on and doubts it all! But in the second half of the novel, I began to doubt if the individual elements held up to scrutiny, let alone if they added up to anything.
Why was Hilly so hung up on Savannah for so long? They’d only seen each other four times. Why was he so mad at his father? Lem Dawson, when it came down to it, brought a lot of trouble on himself. I began to think that Hilly, so convinced that so many things had gone wrong in his life, might have been overreacting.
At one point, Arthur says to Hilly, “Everybody wants a piece of the action once something goes wrong. Everybody thinks they deserve to get paid if somebody dies.” Hilly certainly thinks that things have gone wrong for him, and that he has done great wrong, and he spends a life wrestling with guilt, trying to make restitution long after everyone else in the book tells him to move on. What’s more, he clearly thinks he deserves restitution for how hard life has been for him, and he doesn’t. What at first comes across as a soul’s burden ends up like narcissism. I, too, wanted him to buck up and move on. I came to the eventual conclusion that Hilly would have screwed up whatever life he’d been given, and this undercut any sense of tragedy in the story.
My eventual disappointment with the book may have been my own fault. I assumed I knew its goals from the early hints. Or, the book may have been trying too hard to be grander in scope than it is. The story is about Hilly and the shattered way he views his life, no matter how many archetypes crowd the edges.