Fiction of the Personal and Cultural

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephanie Deutsch, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Two newly released novels weave thick webs of atmosphere and mood around dissimilar characters and relationships. In Louis Auchincloss' Last of the Old Guard (Houghton Mifflin, $24, 192 pages), we are among the privileged elite of New York City, considering an elderly lawyer's musings occasioned by the death of his law partner. Adrian Suydam thinks back over a life-time of incident; the book's action is all in his head.

Similarly, in Damon Galgut's The Impostor (Black Cat, $14, 256 pages), the pace is slow. Adam Napier, a poet trying to recapture his creativity in a remote South African village, is drawn into a strange, passive friendship that leads to a joyless love affair. The settings of Suydam's memories are wood-paneled offices, an elegant library or the dining room at the club while Mr. Galgut's characters are mostly outdoors, having drinks around the barbecue on sultry evenings, driving in cars or bumping into each other on city streets. But in each book the effect is similar - it feels as if the characters, locked into intense relationships, and even the stories themselves, are suffocating for lack of air.

With more than 60 volumes of stories, criticism, biography and fiction to his credit, not to mention long service as an estates lawyer at a prestigious firm, Louis Auchincloss is still vital enough at the age of 91 to appear occasionally in the social columns of the New York Times and to describe with a vulgar epithet the president who presented him with the National Medal of the Arts at the White House in 2005. This vitality notwithstanding, the present book has an elegiac feeling. In the opening paragraph of his new book's first-person narration Mr. Auchincloss evokes the peculiar loneliness [that] waits on one who is still surrounded by a persistently friendly world, but also the kind that is flooded by the ungovernable tide of mixed reminiscence that inundates the emptiness of old age. The protagonist of Last of the Old Guard, Adrian Suydam, is an elderly man mourning the death in 1942 of Ernest Saunders, who he describes as his famous law partner and lifelong friend. Suydam is considering material he omitted when he wrote the official history of their firm, Saunders & Suydam; he remembers episodes he had decided not to include there, discovering others as he rereads letters and memoirs. His ruminations prompt uncomfortable questions. Have I made the best use of my unquestioned advantages? he wonders a few pages into his narrative. Have I even made a respectable use of them?

Of his meeting with Saunders when both were Harvard undergraduates, Suydam writes that it was the most important event of my life. The reflections that follow paint a portrait of Saunders that shows him to be a brilliant but brittle man, chillingly remote but also meddlesome, wary of and disdainful toward women, cruel to a beloved child, infatuated with a sense of his own importance, hopelessly unable to change and grow. Thinking about their shared past, Suydam comes at last to sense, though not quite to acknowledge, just how profoundly he has given himself to the relationship with Ernest and how much it has cost him. He has lived his life in a room that was beautiful and well ordered but where the windows were never opened to admit fresh air.

The Impostor is set in contemporary South Africa where the trendy and vibrant and multicultural Johannesburg neighborhood Adam Napier inhabits has been sliding for a few years, becoming home to gangsters, squatters, crime and drugs. Recently let go from his job, (his boss tells him it's nothing personal, it's all about racial quotas ), finding himself alone and futureless in the middle of his life, Adam flees to the countryside, to live in a shack that belongs to his slick, successful brother. …