By James Collins
Little, Brown, 472 pages, $23.99
Now here’s a pretty fairy tale: The hero is reasonably handsome, chronically kind, invariably sensitive, excruciatingly honorable, infallibly Ivy League—and he helps invent the hedge fund! What a prince! What a savior of mankind.
Have you ever met a hedge-funder like that? I thought so.
Let us be clear—or let James Collins be clear, which he certainly is in this first novel, whether analyzing stocks or human heartbreak—young New Yorker Peter Russell’s breakthrough insights are not considered by his creator to be financial. They are minted instead when the girl of his dreams—or at least his social and romantic calculations—makes him a winner at the perilous game of airplane seat bingo: On a flight to Los Angeles, they fall in love-at-first-sight. Though they agree to meet again, he screws up, she marries someone else, that someone else is his best friend, his best friend dies the night of Peter’s wedding and—innumerable clever portraits of countless related characters later—Mr. Collins awards Beginner’s Greek the ending it has earned.
Peter thinks he’s the pawn of the ancient gods and the curly coiffed Fates he would have learned about in prep school, but what does he know of a coolly watchful authorial presence?
Mr. Collins’ character sketches are nicely Louis Auchincloss (who, after all, must be in want of a successor), with the requisite amount of Jane Austen to please the gals, enough light-touched financial lingo to hook i-bankers stuck in the Admiral’s Club and a conscience sufficiently informed by history and irony to note that the great Wall Street firm Peter works for was founded, among other things, on the slave trade.
But loose biographical briefs they remain. Heavens, no—not briefs as in undergarments. The men in Mr. Collins’ Blue Book world wear only boxers, just as “all of Peter’s pajamas seemed to have blue stripes,” and all the right women have long necks and terrific hair and moments of vulnerability.
AS NOTED, MR. COLLINS is a first-time novelist, and the pearls on this necklace could have done with tighter stringing by an editorial hand. They hang together irregularly, with gaps of filler prose, suddenly interrupted at times also by less polished passages that have some interesting things to say about love, parents, mourning rituals and even Mr. Collins’ cartoonish villain (he’s short, probably went to the wrong schools, and tortures Peter).
Perhaps the gamble was this: Mr. Collins has been other things successfully—an editor and writer for Spy and Time, a corporate financier, a sociable Manhattanite—why not give him his head in writing fiction?
He has acquitted himself admirably as far as a potentially commercial entertainment is concerned. But as the phrase went in the days before e-mail, parts of his novel seem to have been phoned in.
It’s as if, in steering toward the heart of a WASP authenticity, Mr. Collins had bypassed his emotionally familiar haunts and ended up instead on ye olde estate of Ralph Lauren in the northern reaches of Westchester County. Those goods sell, but at what price?
Celia McGee is a book critic and arts writer in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.