Auchincloss' priceless old-money stories

January 08, 1995|By Judith Wynn

Clan loyalties among ruling-class New York WASPs. Preppies, lawyers, trust funds, debutantes and the inexorable flow of capital through Wall Street. Isn't that stale material for a novel?

Not at all.

For the past half-century, Manhattan novelist and practicing attorney Louis Auchincloss has followed in the aristocratic steps of Henry James and Edith Wharton. His bankers and heiresses gleam with drama and wit. His boardrooms, salons and clubs are bathed in an affectionate, ironic glow. Even his snootiest characters have their moments of integrity and self-insight.

"I witnessed the disintegration of an economic ruling class in the 1930s from a front row seat," the 77-year-old Republican turned Democrat says of his heritage.

How has his class weathered the storms of change? "I can't turn you into an economist overnight," one Auchincloss executive tells his flustered wife. Nevertheless, this prolific writer's work gives us privileged glimpses of the "old-money" families whose decisions have helped shape the United States for better or worse.

"The Collected Stories" is a fine, generous sampler of 19 Auchincloss short stories. Its first selection, "Maud" (1949), tells of a pampered rich girl who screams, "I hate you all!" at her jolly, smothering family on Christmas Eve and then spends the rest of her bleak life proving she really meant it. "The Single Reader" (1963), on the other hand, concerns a tax expert who's so smitten with upper-crust society that he devotes his life to

recording its day-to-day doings in a secret diary that thrills him as no mere lover ever could.

"Ares" (1992) harks back to 1870s Manhattan, when an ambitious Southern lawyer is a hit with elite ladies who are "rather titillated .. at meeting a handsome and impoverished rebel officer . . . exercising a beneficent open-mindedness in their affable condescension to a safely defeated enemy." The more contemporary, Irish-American social climber in "The Mavericks" (1962) sports with a female colleague and gets furious when the boss' daughter sees him as "the hero of a dirty story."

Class war erupts in the swankiest settings. The snobbish prep school boy of "Portrait of an Artist by Another" (1987) develops a crush on a popular schoolmaster and gets into a fierce, jealous rivalry with the teacher's socialist wife. In "The Prison Window" (1970), the curator of a Colonial history museum communes with the spirit of a murdered slave.

The anthology's crowning gem is the novella "The Stoic" (1933). Set in the early decades of this century, it tells of a young man's love for a godlike Wall Street financier whose "faith in money . . . seemed his only creed." The impressionable hero enters a sterile marriage of convenience in order to advance in the financier's company and seems fated for domestic disaster until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 re-routes him to a very unconventional happy ending. It's a measure of Mr. Auchincloss' narrative skills that he makes us feel both appalled by and sympathetic to his characters' mercenary natures.

Mr. Auchincloss' elegant prose and clear-eyed moral acuity reveal the convoluted beauty of a social class that is rumored to be in decline and, anyway, too boring to interest serious contemporary fiction readers. "The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss" buffs up that tiny -- but intense -- Ivy League world and makes it sparkle anew.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Massachusetts.

Title: "The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss"

Author: Louis Auchincloss

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 465 pages, $24.95

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