Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Story tackles racially violent '60s from rare standpoint

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THE racial intimidation, violence and segregation in 1950s and '60s America have been the subjects of many novels -- works typically told from the perspectives of those who opposed discrimination: those marching for their rights and their supporters.

Wise Men, a debut novel by U.S. literary up and comer Stuart Nadler, is the rare story that addresses these topics from the perspective of a character who originally appears ignorant of the great struggle that tears apart his country. The novel illustrates the lifetime experience of one Hilton Wise, who, as a naïve boy from Connecticut, becomes swept up in events far beyond his control.

Hilly, as he is known to his family, is white and Jewish, one of the few non-Gentile kids in his working-class neighbourhood of New Haven. His father, Arthur Wise, is an ambitious lawyer who transforms the fate of his family by single-handedly "inventing" the class-action suit and making it big after a series of high-profile cases.

Suddenly, Hilly and his once-impoverished parents are compelled to leave their familiar surroundings and rapidly adjust to an absurdly luxurious lifestyle they never thought possible. Their newfound abundance includes an estate on Cape Cod and a privileged existence resembling that of the Forbeses and Kennedys.

While Hilly's powerful father commutes to and from New York, the boy becomes drawn to the only person who seems to notice and appreciate him: the black estate caretaker, Lem, who in turn introduces him to his teenage niece Savannah.

It is the elusive, beautiful Savannah who becomes the object of Hilly's desire and longing for the rest of his life.

Hilly must hide his feelings for the girl, and his friendship with Lem, from his family. Despite their progressive faßade, the Wise clan shies away from social stigma, subscribing instead to more conservative, even insular views. Of particular concern is Hilly's controlling, driven and volatile father, who appears to have some deep secrets of his own.

As in many American novels, the father-son relationship becomes the key thread of the narrative. Nadler focuses on this tension the most, unfortunately allowing it to overpower the plot to such an extent that most other characters are made to step aside.

The novel spans seven decades in Hilly's life, and as his tale moves towards the modern day, the plot of Wise Men seems to lose some of its emotional resonance.

This does not mean that the story is any less entertaining along the way. Nadler's writing style is wonderfully cinematic -- the novel begins with a plane crash and continues with a series of impassioned encounters and dramatic moments.

In the background, American society trembles with powerful and transformative cataclysms. The Vietnam War devours lives, President John F. Kennedy's death devastates the nation, and resistance to inequality provokes violent retaliation.

Nadler's use of contrasts as Hilly moves between the windswept dunes of Cape Cod and the dusty fields of the American Heartland, searching for his true identity and attempting to find Savannah, is subtle and compelling.

Despite its fresh perspective and page-turning narrative, Wise Men is not a great novel in the vein of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is nevertheless an unflinching look at the fateful bonds between father and son, and a story that reminds us that even our most innocuous choices can carry with them the makings of the future.

 

Paul R. McCulloch is an arts and culture blogger at paulswinnipeg.blogspot.ca.

Wise Men
By Stuart Nadler
Reagan Arthur Books, 352 pages, $29

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 J9

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