Suburban-success satire

seer of beauty

two dueling sisters

New Fiction

October 24, 2004|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

Human Capital

By Stephen Amidon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pages. $25.

It's the end of an era -- spring 2001, when the boom of the previous decade is fading and the terrorist threats of the next are fast approaching. But the characters in Stephen Amidon's novel are oblivious to everything except their own tangled fates in a prosperous suburban haven called Totten Crossing. So strong is the pressure to be rich and happy that everyone in town must strive constantly to get ahead with better jobs, bigger cars and fancier houses.

But as the story opens, real estate agent Drew Hagel is falling behind and needs cash fast. A ruthless new cartel has taken away much of his business and his bad investments have wiped out his savings. His new wife is expecting twins, and he can't bear to give her the bad news. The only thing he has left is the relatively primitive resource acknowledged in the title -- and nobody in Totten Crossing has much use for human capital in an era when the stock market is soaring.

Amidon's novel is a wonderfully wicked satire on a 21st-century gilded age, where everything seems to be in abundance except common sense and decency. His book is more than just one family's story. It's a portrait of a whole society caught in a dead end that everyone insists will lead somewhere after all. The kids are so pampered that they balk at doing any real work and rely on their parents to clean up all their messes. The adults move like zombies from Starbucks to the Office Park to the Mall, murmuring brand names to each other and magic acronyms like NASDAQ.

Hopelessly trapped and unequipped to make his escape, Drew has no choice but to dig in his heels and trap someone else into helping him survive. As Amidon brilliantly sums up Drew's problem, "All he wanted was enough. But enough wasn't what it used to be. You needed a whole lot more to have enough these days."

The Line of Beauty

by Alan Hollinghurst. Bloomsbury. 438 pages. $24.95.

This is the fourth novel by one of the best stylists in the English language, and it just won this year's Booker Prize. It has a well-developed plot and a large cast of characters -- at the center of which is a young man searching for love and purpose in Margaret Thatcher's England. But the rich Tories and bitter Laborites battling for control of Britain's soul take a back seat to the book's elegant but sturdy prose, which is as finely crafted as an ornamental design on an old vase or in the stonework of a church portal.

Young Nick Guest -- well-educated but of modest means and temporarily supported by a wealthy family that has befriended him -- is a student of beauty and is always on the lookout for it in the bodies of handsome strangers or in the light fading over the London rooftops where he lives. The town has its dirt and chaos, but Nick's eye has a way of catching every sparkle of beauty and lingering over it like a connoisseur. He is the poor collector of the free treasures scattered under light and shade in a vast metropolis where most people walk with their eyes fixed on nothing in particular.

One sentence will have to suffice as an example of Hollinghurst's art in the service of his character's vision. Pausing just for a second on a tour of a rich man's private library, Nick stands back and notes that "the heavy gilding of the spines, seen through the fine gilt grilles of the carved and gilded bookcases, created a mood of minatory opulence."

Author, Author

by David Lodge. Viking. 390 pages. $24.95.

A serious literary critic, David Lodge has found commercial success writing campus novels about tempests in academic teapots. He has a light touch with weighty issues and proves it once again in this new book, which breaks fresh ground in its innovative approach to creating fiction in the form of biography. Mixing fact and fancy, it turns the rather stuffy historical figure of Henry James into a lively character of endearing complexity and resolve whose struggles with authorship are part of a deeper design in life.

Lodge's version of the Master is less the literary lion and more the anxious man of ambition. His Henry James yearns for popular as well as critical approval, and is haunted by jealousy after two close rivals impress the fickle public with slick best-selling books. In a misguided effort to conquer the London stage -- and thereby prove his worth -- James tries his hand at writing plays. But, as was the case with the real author, he fails so badly that he begins to question his talent.

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