By Joseph Finder
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; C01
By Jonathan Dee
Random House. 258 pp. $25
F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: The very rich really are different from you and me. For one thing, they tend to get treated shabbily in our modern literature. The nouveau riche in particular. When they're not caricatures of rapaciousness, they're Cautionary Tales, leading lives of quiet desperation behind the wheels of their Maseratis.
So it's a pleasure to come across a writer who steers clear of all those cliches. Jonathan Dee's scintillating fifth novel, "The Privileges," tells the story of a golden couple, Adam and Cynthia Morey, who rise swiftly from modest Midwestern circumstances (Adam's father is a pipefitter) to immense wealth in New York. The book opens at their wedding in Pittsburgh, a scene that's a tour de force of shifting points of view, rendered with artistry and control I haven't seen since Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto."
We then follow the couple and their growing family through different stages over the decades, beginning with their galvanizing visit to the country house of Adam's hedge-fund boss, where he and Cynthia are shaken to their core by the lavishness of a life that they immediately covet. And since they're the sort of infuriating winners to whom success always comes effortlessly, it's not long before they get everything they want, and more.
When Adam, who's become his boss's prodigy and surrogate son, receives a six-figure bonus, he finds himself oddly disappointed: If he's ever going to get seriously rich, he'll have to do much better. Naturally, opportunity falls right into his lap. At a company party, Adam sees one of his colleagues lose his Patek Philippe wristwatch to an adroit young pickpocket, who turns out to be a stockbroker and a hustler. Delighted by the kid's moxie, Adam offers him an inside stock tip. Soon the two are accomplices, and Adam becomes, in Tom Wolfe's immortal phrase, a Master of the Universe. He and Cynthia now have "so much money that they had to hire people just to help them figure out how to give it away."
Dee describes his characters with a quicksilver grace. We first meet Adam's mother at her son's wedding, smiling "as if she were being filmed laughing." Cynthia's acquisitiveness is suggested with gentle brushstrokes: "She'd started glancing adulterously at the real estate section." In one indelible scene, Cynthia goes to Florida to be with her dying father, who abandoned her and her mother when she was a teenager; she wants to spend a few last hours by his bedside without the irksome presence of her father's blowsy girlfriend. So Cynthia deftly sizes the woman up, then pays her off to just go away and leave them alone. Everyone can be bought.
Dee is a remarkably skilled portraitist with a rare talent for rendering his characters' points of view with deep empathy. But he's also made the curious, perhaps brave, decision to withhold any implicit criticism of the felonious Adam and his grasping wife. Compare Adam with, say, Bret Easton Ellis's rudderless rich kids, lost in moral decay, empty sex and sadistic violence. Or the Wall Street tycoon in Louis Auchincloss's "The Embezzler," who ends up in prison. Adam is never tormented by guilt. He's exhilarated by the risk-taking, the heady excitement of going right up to the edge and peering over. He sees himself not as a schemer but as a heroic figure. Taking great risks in order to give his family "a life in which literally anything was possible" was, he tells himself, "the noblest thing he had ever done in his life." And his wife agrees: "You are a man, Adam. You are a man among men." They live in the moment, untethered by the sentimental ties to the past that slow others down. They have no self-doubt, and they don't believe in failure, with good reason: Nothing bad ever happens to them. Even their screwed-up children, who each get into trouble toward the end of the story, are easily extricated. They're the Teflon Billionaires.
As a result, they have a strangely frictionless quality. They want for nothing, experience no setbacks, undergo no Damascene conversion or even a crisis of conscience. The Morey family enjoys its ill-gotten fortune with very little cost. We believe they're being set up for a tragic fall, and when it doesn't come, it's frustrating. It's a bleak end to a largely buoyant novel. But maybe that's Dee's point: We don't always reap what we sow; we live in a world in which bad things sometimes happen to good people and crime sometimes does pay.
"The Privileges" will inevitably be compared to "The Corrections," but Jonathan Franzen's novel is more ambitious and, finally, more successful, taking on as it does the complex dynamic of a family and its bruising power struggles. "The Privileges" lacks that amplitude and richness. The dazzlements of Dee's prose give way in the end to a disappointing insubstantiality: too many privileges, too few consequences.
Finder is the author of nine novels, including "High Crimes," "Paranoia" and "Vanished."