In a certain kind of story, characters reflect and explore the financial world outside their narrative. A population left destitute by the American Civil War, for example, found hope in 1867 when Horatio Alger published Ragged Dick, a myth promising that honesty and hard work could take you from the poverty of a bootblack to the slightly less soul-crushing poverty of the lower-middle class. By contrast, an America barreling toward the Great Depression in 1925 ignored The Great Gatsby’s warnings about people who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.”
Likewise, in Stuart Nadler’s ambitious debut novel, Wise Men, the narrator, Hilton “Hilly” Wise, corresponds to a particular demographic in contemporary America—rich, white people who have not earned their socioeconomic status and who feel terrible about it. In their hearts, their undeserved privilege provokes shame, anger, and guilt, but not enough guilt that they don’t spend the cash. Throughout the novel’s 335 pages, Nadler writes beautifully about these people for whom the rags-to-riches story has become a just-plain-riches story.
In 1947, at the beginning of Wise Men, Hilly suffers a life-changing shock when his father prosecutes an airline for negligence. Suddenly, the case brings a vast fortune to the Wise family, more than Hilly or the reader can fathom. Hilly’s parents relocate to a seaside town called Bluepoint on the coast of Cape Cod, everything rendered in Nadler’s carefully observed prose. Hilly is uncomfortable with his new situation, although he manages to adjust. He has enough money to buy anything he wants—except it’s not really his money, he didn’t earn it.
As he struggles to adjust to his life of privilege, Hilly clashes with his ruthless father, Arthur, a bully whose success has brought him fame as well as riches. Hilly is also fascinated by his father, though, and gains perspective through the device of “researching” Arthur. He looks through old film reels, sorts through interviews, and searches for clues in newspapers. Although he sometimes hates his father, Hilly acknowledges how much control the old man has over him. He tries to heed Arthur’s advice while ignoring the old man’s less-attractive qualities—Arthur’s racism and his abusive behavior toward the poor, black caretaker at the Bluepoint house, for example.
Arthur and Hilly’s tumultuous relationship drives much of the book’s conflict, and the other characters orbit them as the plot spins forward. Robert Ashley, Arthur’s partner, provides an introspective counterpoint to his volatile friend. Hilly’s mother, Ruthie, fades into the background at Bluepoint, neglected by Arthur, and risks becoming spoiled and forgotten. Later, when he’s older, Hilly’s girlfriend, Jenny, becomes torn between her love for Hilly and the gravitational pull of Arthur’s personality.
But no one suffers more than the aforementioned caretaker, Lem Dawson, a quiet old man who lives on the Bluepoint property and paints landscapes when he’s not busy running errands or taking care of the grounds. Soon Hilly and Lem form a kind of understanding. Still, because of a misguided loyalty to his father, Hilly must choose to protect or betray his friend, a decision that intersects with Arthur’s own powerful secrets. Ultimately, the situation—entangled with Hilly’s feelings for Savannah, Lem’s niece—ruin the tranquility of Bluepoint, and leave everyone bitter and miserable for decades to come.
With beautiful sentences and richly imagined characters, Wise Men contains echoes of previous great American novels, but makes a focused effort at originality. It evokes The Great Gatsby, of course, but also To Kill a Mockingbird, another book with an older narrator reflecting on a childhood shadowed by racial tensions and a larger-than-life father (even if Arthur Wise and Atticus Finch are very different men). But as time passes, Nadler allows the story to deepen and complicate in a way that feels true to reality. Rather than follow a clichéd plotline, the characters behave in unexpected ways, and subvert expected patterns even while they celebrate traditional American storytelling.
In its prose, Wise Men showcases Nadler’s talent with simple, direct language. He excels at letting physical details serve the story, creating sentences that first and foremost show the emotions and actions of his characters. At the same time, however, he manages to also give the phrases a melodic structure, such as when Hilly begins to daydream about Savannah even though he’s still living with his racist father on the coast of Cape Cod:
My father had taken to putting up an American flag every morning, and the sound of its grommets smacking the flagpole made me think of the creaky hinge on the door Savannah had held open with her toe. Wind lifting the canvas over a cord of firewood behind the house suddenly became the sound of the tarp flapping against the roof beams of their cabin.
Years later, as he tries to understand the traumatic events at Bluepoint, Hilly will search for Savannah and her family in an effort to absolve himself of responsibility regarding a tragedy he helped to engineer. Since the novel is written in first person, Wise Men sometimes relies on twists and misunderstanding too much, under the pretext that its narrator could not have had the whole story. Still, the book paints a moving, authentic portrait of what can happen when concealed secrets collide with ignorance, and how, when there’s nothing left to do but move forward, ordinary people can find within themselves the capacity for love and forgiveness.