By Roger Rosenblatt
Ecco. 243 pp. $23.95
If you know only his sententious essays on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," then the idea of Roger Rosenblatt writing a comic novel sounds as promising as Henry Kissinger doing ballet. In fact, Rosenblatt turns out to be a very funny man. His friends probably know this already, as do readers of Rules for Aging (2000), a humor book so burdened by the author's solemn reputation that its subtitle pleaded that it was "a wry and witty guide to life." When he's not writing on the evils of racism, the plight of children in Cambodia or the spiritual landscape since 9/11, this other Rosenblatt -- the funny one -- dons a deadpan tone in the tradition of Mark Twain, equal parts misanthropy and idealism.
His debut novel, Lapham Rising , is about a brilliant curmudgeon driven to madness by his abhorrence of modern-day excess. The book has nothing to do with Lewis Lapham, the brilliant curmudgeon who rises each month to express his abhorrence of modern-day excess in the pages of Harper's magazine. Coincidentally, the title alludes to a novel written by a much earlier editor of Harper's named William Dean Howells. In addition to reigning over American criticism for a couple of decades at the end of the 19th century, Howells wrote a lot of very fine, boring novels that nobody -- except, apparently, Roger Rosenblatt -- reads anymore. His best, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), is about a socially ambitious paint manufacturer who builds a spectacular mansion in Boston that eventually burns down, leading to his financial ruin -- and his moral redemption.
Rosenblatt's novel plays with this story very loosely and sports a kind of goofiness and despair that would have rattled Howells's tea cup. The narrator is Harry March, an aging, divorced, long-blocked novelist who lives in ferocious isolation on a tiny sandbar in Quogue, N.Y., in the Hamptons, "because," he says, "I have trouble making connections." That's putting it mildly. He usually communicates with the outside world by megaphone or by passing notes on a remote-controlled toy boat. His only companion -- besides a life-sized statue of his ex-wife at the kitchen table -- is Hector, his talking dog, who's a born-again Christian. So witty and gentle are Hector's admonitions that it's impossible to tell if this absurdity is meant to be taken literally or if Harry is merely projecting his saner thoughts onto his dog.
We meet Harry on the day he is about to commit "an act of social protest" using a catapult he built from a mail-order kit. "This may be the most important day of my life," Harry says, "the moment when all the stray and whorling strands of my existence merge into one clear, straight ribbon of light, and I at last win the towering moral satisfaction due all those who are driven to defend what is decent, modest, and right in the world."
For across the creek from his little cottage rises the awesome House of Lapham, a four-story, 36,000-square-foot monstrosity that sounds like a fantasy dreamed up by Kubla Khan, Jay Gatsby and Bill Gates. The shocking extravagance of today's mansions is a fast-moving target even for the sharpest social critic to hit, but Rosenblatt's description is a tour de force, a vast compendium of the real and soon-to-be-real accouterments of the superrich, from "scatter rugs made from the hair of a dingo" to "a bidet carved from a single piece of murky pink marble found only in a quarry in Oslo, by the hand of Carmen of Nordstrom" to jet-powered air conditioners that keep the grounds around Lapham's house at a pleasant 65 degrees.
"Every time I take my eyes off the construction site," Harry says, "it seems to double its size, as though it were an endlessly enlarging mythical animal -- one of those terrible Greek freak creations born of the forced copulation of a god with an animal, a god of cathedral ceilings or of mansard roofs with a toucan or a buffalo -- producing a vague composite with indefinite haunches and misty tentacles."
The whole book is a witty rant like this -- poorly plotted and uneven, but such a rich collection of satiric scenes and cracks that you won't mind. (And it's very short.) Usually, it swings out wildly at the absurd sense of self-importance inspired by wealth and epitomized by Lapham, who, after making a fortune selling asparagus tongs, now delivers banal advice on his blog while contemplating a run for the Senate. But sometimes the story punches at more specific targets, such as the Hamptons or the Chautauqua Institution, that tony summer school for adults in upstate New York, where Lapham Rising should sell especially well.
The tragedy at the heart of this bitter comedy, though, is not just Lapham's monstrous vanity and the enormous footprint his money allows him to leave on the world; it's the insane response Lapham's obnoxiousness provokes in Harry, corroding his sensitivity and humor into a bitter lamentation. As wave after wave of high-class vulgarity breaks against him, Harry becomes an absurd old freak, crying in a soon-to-be subdivided wilderness. If only he could master the empty grin and hollow enthusiasm of the Hamptons crowd, he wouldn't be so enraged by everything Lapham represents. Sadly, he can't help but "seethe and fume and rant and go nuts," knowing that despite anything Harry might catapult at him, Lapham will win in the end. Maybe, but enjoying such a sharp satire is a brief moment of victory. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.