Wise Men is Stuart Nadler’s debut novel and I feel like I will be reading his work for years to come. This book is good enough and beautiful enough for me to say that with confidence.
1952. Race and class divide America. East coast lawyer Arthur Wise cashes in on plane crashes, suing airlines and making money from tragedies. His son Hilton, always called Hilly, witnesses his small family move from a small but comfortable life to a house by the sea in Massachusetts, obnoxious wealth filling every room, and an African-American ‘house boy’ inherited from the former owners. His name is Lem Dawson and he lives in an apartment just separate from the main house. Seventeen year old Hilly does his best to befriend Lem, but his father’s bossiness and lack of respect for anyone he considers beneath him inevitably creates distance, and Lem is reluctant to engage with Hilly.
One Sunday Lem’s brother-in-law and niece arrive to take him to church. Lem is dressed in a suit, ready to go, when Hilly’s father decides he needs Lem to deliver his endless messages to his business partner Robert, at his house down the beach. An argument ensues inside Lem’s apartment; soon he appears dressed in his work clothes again. During this little scene, Hilly has been chatting with Lem’s brother-in-law Charles, who used to play baseball professionally. Hilly loves baseball, and Charles shows him the best way to pitch; but really Hilly wants to talk to Lem’s niece, Savannah. She is a little younger than him, nervous but engaging, and stunningly beautiful. He loves her from the first moment.
Hilly’s passion for Savannah stays with him for the rest of his life. After an eventful and fateful night (I won’t spoil what happens) in 1952, his world and that of Savannah and Lem changes forever. Twenty years later, in 1972, we meet Hilly again; and then in 2008. His decisions on that night, and another fateful day in 1972, affect his entire life, and the lives of those around him. Throughout his life he cannot stop thinking of Savannah, looking for her everywhere; and how he blames himself for the way Lem’s life turned out.
The blurb on my proof copy of Wise Men calls the novel a ‘sweeping story about love and regret, about the crushing weight of familial obligation, and the difficulty of doing the right thing in an unjust world’. It is also a story about a father and a son, and their attempts to understand each other. Whole lifetimes can pass without a family really knowing the truth about each other, or who they all really are underneath. This novel, to me, almost seemed like a series of character portraits, spun out over 50 years; the author and the reader working together to peel back the layers of the personalities and get to the real person underneath all the pretence.
Suffice to say I loved this novel. I have not really done it justice here. While the story is beautiful and sad (it is the first book in a long time to make me well up), the language is also wonderful. The whole thing flows and ebbs like speech, and there are moments of great beauty that you have to read over and over.
This was an unsolicited book that I am very glad I received. After reading the blurb I knew it would be a book I would enjoy. The writing reminded me of two of my absolute favourite authors, Donna Tartt and Truman Capote, both of whom often move me greatly. The events and issues covered in Wise Men are in some ways universal, and I think every reader could find something to relate to, or something that strikes some kind of chord within them. As soon as they’re out, I will be getting myself one of the beautiful finished copies from Picador. I urge you to do the same.
Wise Men will be published in the UK by Picador on 28th March 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.