Mid-twentieth century America, baseball, the rise of the mega-lawyer, discrimination and blackmail, thwarted love, rags-to-riches: Wise Men casts a wide net. A guilt-ridden white man and a defiantly independent black woman are the stars, lit by the glow of a pile of loot that might impress Scrooge himself; the backdrop is the civil rights movement, and the setting is the New England coast. It’s John Grisham via Underworld, Gilmore Girls and To Kill A Mockingbird.
In brief: it’s 1952, and Hilly Wise is the son of Arthur Wise, a lawyer who’s famously clawed his way to the top of the litigation shit-heap by suing, and subsequently defending, massive airlines. Abrasive, cocky, and trying to settle into his new-found wealth, Arthur’s also a bigot, and he treats his new black caretaker, Lem Dawson, very badly. Teenage Hilly (Hilton), meanwhile, is unhappy: he’s uncomfortable with the way his parents are behaving, and he wants to make it up to Lem. When he meets Lem’s beautiful niece, Savannah, he falls for her, but circumstances—his dad, her dad—make it impossible for anything to happen between them. His father finds out anyway, though, and Hilly, afraid something bad will happen to Savannah, deflects Arthur’s ire onto Lem, telling Arthur that Lem’s been snooping in his papers. Lem’s imprisoned, and, later, murdered in his cell. Hilly spends the rest of his life trying to track Savannah down and assuage his guilt.
There’s a little more to it than that, including a last-page reveal that I won’t spoil, the answer to a loose thread in the plot, but one that felt like an enormous gimmick, a rabbit pulled out of the novelist’s hat to add intrigue and depth and to make the reader gasp in belated recognition. But, over three hundred pages in, it was a little too late to try and woo me. Nadler’s début novel is undoubtedly ambitious, but that ambition is all caught up in nailing the Big Themes (race, family conflict, the American dream of Making It Big). Stylistically, it’s unadventurous; it’s far too long for a plot that slows enormously after the first third; and, while it might be hyper-aware of race relations and associated politics, it’s sadly lacking in the equivalent attention to gender roles.
Like Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, or Franzen’s Freedom, Wise Men errs massively on the side of exhaustive narration: we get full details of pretty much everything Hilly ever sees and thinks—long riffs on baseball stats and local newspapers’ routines, very long descriptions of furniture, feet (plenty of feet), clothing, his own culpability and desires and analyses of his father’s personality. Hemingway, this isn’t: everything Hilly knows, we know, whether or not we want or need to know it. Hence the length of the book, of course. Now, there’s clearly a market for this sort of eagle-eyed, ruminative prose—Amazon and Barnes and Noble have already hyped this as one of the biggies of 2013, and I can see it doing very well indeed. Why? Well, audiences don’t tired of massive injustice, so the ill-treatment of a black family by a white family, and the white family’s subsequent reaction, is going to sell well. It’s not a difficult read—you don’t have to squint between any lines to figure out Nadler’s angle. Justice and injustice are emblazoned all over it: the lawyers; Hilly’s cackhanded attempts to do good; even the title, Wise Men (geddit?) is a nod to how clearly unwise they all are (see?). But, like I said, it’s unadventurous—the prose is staid (though flawlessly competent), the characters are predictable (the good lawyer, the bad lawyer, the outraged son, the father with a dark secret, the no-good gambling daddies, the kind librarian). Structurally, it’s addressed to Hilly’s granddaughter as a confession, but since we only find this out in the last pages, it feels tacked on and lazy. The book isn’t going to offend many people, because it’s very obviously on the ‘correct’ side of all the moral issues it raises, but neither can I see it exciting anyone who’s hoping for a real literary find.
The gender thing, though: that’s a problem. Hilly Wise likes a damsel in distress, as his wife tells him, and that’s okay, because he’s a deliberately flawed character. But pretty much all the damsels here are in distress, and in a book that purports to deal at least partly with prejudice, that’s one bad oversight. Men rescue women, and women marry men, or want to marry men. Jenny, Hilly’s wife, is rescued by Hilly’s dad: she can’t even diagnose her own pregnancy; it takes wily old Arthur Wise to do interpret her own body for her. Hilly’s mum is driven silly by wealth. Lauren Becker is rescued from a life of poverty by Hilly—she’s the book’s only purportedly unproblematic success story, except that she’s not any kind of agent in her own redemption. Hilly’s four daughters are all defined and described by the attentions they pay to their father and grandfather. Savannah, who would appear to be the strong female lead, denying Hilly, fleeing him, refusing him, still admits to longing for him—a man who condescended to her, who stalked her, who sent her uncle to his death! Hilly’s mad pursuit of her is ridiculous (unwise!), a fact that he himself recognises, but Savannah’s contempt for him and his arrogance and hegemony is undermined by Nadler in the way he allows her to flirt with him, to touch him and kiss him, to come and visit him and wink at him. It’s unrealistic and it’s patronising.
Any Cop? This is unchallenging in the way a Paul Haggis film is unchallenging, and I think it’ll be popular in the same way, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it for just those reasons. But horses for courses, and you might love it.