Alfred A. Schmidt Delivered , by Louis Begley. Knopf, 292 pages, $25.
In his masterly 1996 novel About Schmidt , Louis Begley traced a narrative whose outline could have come straight from Austen or Trollope. The book began with an old family house in danger of being sold, a distressing luncheon invitation and the threat of a matrimonial misalliance. It ended with a marriage of sorts, and with the reading of a will.
Mr. Begley was most un-Austenish, however, in his choice of protagonist: no pale and dreamy virgin, setting out on life’s journey full of Gothic fantasies and Devonshire cream, but rather a cigar-smoking, Scotch-drinking WASP lawyer of the old school, age 60, who’d recently lost both his wife (cancer) and his job (an ever-so-gentle nudge from his fellow partners at the firm of Wood & King). And yet there was something virginal about Albert Schmidt, a sort of naked innocence, as he stumbled afresh into the cold light of the world.
For all its deft vignettes of the splendors and miseries of the Hamptons, About Schmidt was as much a psychological novel as a social one. Mr. Begley’s great achievement was to take an overprivileged and unpleasant man–rich, resentful, anti-Semitic, emotionally stunted–and render him vulnerable and sympathetic. The book was less compelling as a dynamic narrative than as a static, meticulously painted portrait. But as such, it had the subtlety and elegance, the sadism and dark humor, of a canvas by Ingres.
Schmidt Delivered , like its predecessor, has an oddly flat and passive title. And its protagonist, indeed, is not a man who makes things happen, but a man to whom things happen. Still, how exactly, one might ask, is he “delivered”? Like a saved soul? Like a newborn child? Like a FedExed legal brief? All of these, actually, as it turns out.
At the end of the last novel, Schmidt had plunged whole hog into the second adolescence of late middle age, embarking on a surprisingly intense affair with Carrie, a young Puerto Rican waitress. At the beginning of the new book, he has every reason to feel pleased with himself. Carrie is snugly ensconced in the house at Bridgehampton. Schmidt’s daughter, Charlotte, is separating from her husband, Jon Riker, a son-in-law he’d never wanted. (Not only is Jon a Jew, he is also–perhaps worse–one of the Young Turk partners at Schmidt’s former firm.) The odious Renata Riker, Jon’s psychiatrist mother, has witnessed the undoing of all her well-knit plans.
But Schmidt is vexed by the premonition–accurate, as it happens–that it can’t all last. Especially his relationship with Carrie: “How long would it be before that wild girl told him she had had it with her old and limp lover?” In his lawyerly fashion, he embarks on the project of protecting his assets as well as he can for as long as he can. It surely bodes ill for him that, reading in bed at night with Carrie at his side, he gives up on Trollope and takes up Henry James: “He had abandoned Phineas Redux , for the first time unable to share Trollope’s enthusiasm for Phineas or Lady Glen or Mr. Plantagenet Palliser, to feel that, across time and space, true English ladies and gentlemen were his spiritual comrades in arms. In the place of Phineas , he had taken up James’s The Awkward Age , which he pored over sentence by sentence, if not word by word, struggling to make sure he understood correctly the diabolical chatter over teacups.”
Although Mr. Begley tries hard to strike a Jamesian tone (and although he is, as ever, a master stenographer of diabolical chatter over teacups), Schmidt Delivered seems somehow a gentler book than About Schmidt . It is clear that the author has grown fond of his characters–perhaps a bit too fond. But there are more complicated reasons, as well, for the softening of tone and brightening of colors. Mr. Begley is a writer with a keen and precise sense of history, and while his first Schmidt novel unfolded in the last years of the Bush administration, which may be seen, in retrospect, as the Indian summer for a certain breed of WASP, Schmidt Delivered is set closer to the present, in a less pessimistic world, perhaps, but one that has even less use for Schmidt and his kind. Emblematic of this new age is an important new figure–a Soros-like billionaire named Michael Mansour, “eerily brutal and bright,” who alternately courts and bullies him. Like the mysterious Mr. Wilson in About Schmidt , Mansour is a doppelgänger of sorts, a sinister reflection of Schmidt’s own appetites, pursuits and stratagems.
Even more than its predecessor, Schmidt Delivered showcases Mr. Begley’s long-standing fascination with the interplay or personality and profession. His characters, in a sense, are their jobs. Mansour, the investor and film producer, is “the only man [Schmidt] had ever met who wanted everyone around him to feel manipulated.” Carrie, the (now ex-) waitress, gracefully makes her rounds among several men and collects her tip at the end. And Schmidt himself is a man with a mind like a yellow legal pad. He thinks of life as a series of arrangements to be made, deals to be discreetly brokered.
Mr. Begley, who is a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, is himself the most lawyerly of novelists. At the end of Schmidt Delivered , he provides carefully for his various characters, settling them down with an assortment of jobs, houses, pets, trust funds. But he is no Schmidt. His sympathies are too broad and generous, his judgment of character too sharp. He is both prosecutor and defender, as cutting as he is kind.
Adam Goodheart is a member of the editorial board of The American Scholar.