An outsider before and after Princeton

September 30, 1990|By ANNE WHITEHOUSE

The Final Club.

Geoffrey Wolff.


371 pages. $18.95. In the melodramatic opening of Geoffrey Wolff's new novel, the protagonist, 16-year-old Nathaniel Clay, is witness to a fight between his parents and asked to make the untenable choice as to which of them will live. Although tragedy is temporarily averted when he refuses, he nevertheless is morally compromised. In the future, he will feel compelled out of shame ** to conceal the truth about his parents' failures -- his father's drunken death in a bar, and his mother's mental breakdown. As an adult, Nathaniel will become the writer of a magazine column that addresses itself to ethical questions of conduct, precisely because he knows how to live with a lie.

The ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald presides over this ironic novel of manners. For a while Nathaniel will sign his column "Nick Carraway," after the narrator of "The Great Gatsby," which he first reads with profound admiration on his train ride east to attend Princeton (Fitzgerald's alma mater) in 1956. Like Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby and Fitzgerald, Nathaniel sees himself as a Western outsider seeking acceptance in the Eastern establishment; and the first -- and stronger -- half of the novel, "The Class of '60," is a narrative of his formative college years.

Seattle-bred, half Jewish, he has grown up blessed by the generous love and material comforts of his mother's parents, who own a major Seattle department store, although attempts at contact with his father's parents, Yankee radio inventors in Chicago, are constantly rebuffed. By the time he leaves for Princeton, Nathaniel is a snob in the making and a romantic prepared for love at first sight. During that seminal journey east on the Empire Builder, he immediately succumbs to the cruel charms of a lovely, shallow social climber, Diana (pronounced "Dee-ah-nah") Carr. Her enticement of him and subsequent rejection give Nathaniel a foretaste of what awaits at Princeton, which first appears as paradisiacally beautiful, "a late-summer garden of a campus, green, smelling of fruit and blossom."

The first six chapters follow Nathaniel's progress from callow freshman, unskilled in social graces, as he learns the uses of discrimination, both as a scholarly tool and a social weapon. Aspiring to take his place among the favored, as a sophomore he is rejected from every one of Princeton's eating clubs during the two-week rush period called Bicker. The description of Nathaniel's humiliation and the almost magical resolution that follows make for the most poignant writing in the novel.

Nathaniel is pompous and earnest, even humorless, compared to his preppie best friends and roommates, Booth Tarkington Griggs and Pownall Hamm, who take him under their tutelage and protection. During this period, Nathaniel's most persistent emotion is shame. When, encouraged by his roommates, he finally scorns the scornful Diana, he suffers from second thoughts: "He was ashamed to have acted badly, and he was ashamed that she had acted badly, and he was ashamed to love NTC her, and he was ashamed to be ashamed to love her."

During these chapters, Nathaniel's perceptions are continually being filtered through an ironic commentary that is witty and stylized, studded with literary allusions and, at its best, evocative and surprising. At its worst, the tone conveys an irritating air of pedantry and a smirk of self-satisfaction. When the irony is allowed to lapse, what is revealed is often embarrassing sentimentality. Perhaps it's a question of personal taste as to whether one accepts the descriptions of the monthly dinners of the Final Club, a gathering of 12 individuals that includes Nathaniel in his senior year, as the elegant, eloquent, "--ing" events they are portrayed as being, or whether one finds them insular and pretentious. The formation of the Final Club represents the apex of Nathaniel's college career: He can afford to create his own exclusive institution.

The second part of the novel, "What Came After," is a compilation of narrative and documents spanning the next 20 years. "The more things change, the more they remain the same" is the operative theme here. Nathaniel is guilty of his father's sin, and his son, Jake, though innocent, finds himself in a compromising position between his parents.

In "What Came After," one misses the tighter construction of "The Class of 1960." The passage of time is less of a problem than the scattered focus. The novel, which heretofore centered entirely around Nathaniel, sacrifices tension when it leaves him behind. At times the writing suffers a loss of credibility. One particularly must strain to accept Jake's 25-page essay, "My Lovely Father," as the creation of an 8-year-old child.

Although the movement of the novel is from a threatened disaster to a disastrous accident, the ending lacks the sense of tragic finality of, for instance, "The Great Gatsby." It seems arbitrary, and oddly inconclusive. But perhaps that is what Mr. Wolff means to convey, after all.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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