There is a shameful pleasure in reading Louis Auchincloss: I felt it, for example, on page 30 of "The House of the Prophet," his 22nd and most recent book of fiction. The year is 1904. Our hero has been thoughtlessly dispatched by his darling Mum to Mrs. Driscoll's Day School on Central Park West wearing a "velvet suit like Little Lord Fauntleroy." The class bully warns him not to don such a garment again: but the next day the manly little chap once again shows up resplendently attired. The leering brute accosts him in the halls, eyes afire with simian rage, and demands: "Is your memory defective? Wasn't yesterday enough?"
"Is your memory defective?" Who else but Louis Auchincloss could wirte today about a 14-year-old who talks that way, and mean it? For there is not a scrap of irony in that sentence -- or, for that matter, anywhere else in the 275 ponderous pages that chronicle the life and itmes of the boy in the velvet suit, Felix Leitner, columnist, legal philosopher and upper-class twit.
Leitner's career is loosely based on that of the late Walter Lippmann. He attends Yale, writes a biography of Theordore Roosevelt for the 1912 campaign and cultivates impeccable taste in art. He marries a suitably genteel socialist ("Why should we have sought the heads of the rich?" she muses years later. "We were not frustrated social climbers. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt asked Mommie and Dad to her balls"). In due course, he becomes a member of FDR's brain trust; but his faith in social justic wanes. He takes a job with a Wall Street law firm and writes a book arguing that "the Constitution can be made to yield to any interpretation."
Such intellectual apostasy can only lead to moral laxness, and temptation soon appears in the person of Gladys Satterlee, an alluring socialite who "affect long sashes and very high heels, and . . . smoked Turkish cigarettes in a long ebony holder." The two find themselves alone together for a mad moment on a hill above the blue Atlantic, and Felix boldly leans close and whispers, "I've been offered a seat on the Nation Labor Relations Board." Overwhelmed, Gladys invites him to "a lunch of chicken salad sandwiches and a bottle of Moselle."
The affair is discovered. To live down their disgrace they marry and make "a motor tour of the cathedrals of France." Then it's back across the pond to a house on Q Street run by "an efficient black couple."
There Felix writes a semiweekly newspaper column while Gladys plans glittering dinners. But his published opinions get them stricken off invitation lists, and Gladys leaves. Felix lives to a ripe old age as the capital's leading pundit, until he is overtaken by a stroke and dies in "the time of Watergate."
Why did I find this all so tiresome, when other novels by Auchincloss, equally precious and hoity-toity, have been enjoyable? There are good touches here and there, and the character of Felix, "a kind of monster of self," is intermittently vivid and intriguing. But in the end, it adds up to little more than a motor tour of New York society totems of the past half-century.
It's worth comparing this book with Auchincloss's best-known novel, "The Rector of Justin." In a sense, they are the same book. Both tell the story of an East Coast elite egotist through improbable epistolary fragments assembled by a fragile amanuensis -- the hysterical Brian Aspinwall of "The Rector of Justic," the diabetic, impotent Roger Cutter of "The House of the Prophet." In both books, the character goes through a central crisis of faith -- Justin's Frank Prescott of his faith in the God of Phillips Brooks, Leitner of his in secular political reform.
But "The Rector of Justin" stands up under repeated rereadings; "The House of the Prophet" is a soggy mess.
The reason, I think, has to do with scale. Frank Prescott is a private-school headmaster, and "The Rector of Justin" leads the reader back to adolescene, a time when class-snobbery and affectation seem deadly serious, and the caprices of such creatures can still affect our futures. By contrast, Felix Leitner moves in the great world of history and politics, in which he plays the minor role of "intellectual commentator" and "detached political philosopher." I have trouble finding much enthusiasm for reading real Washington columns, much less long novels about the ink-stained wretches who write them.
Thus, when Roger Cutter is troubled by the revelations of Leitner's friends, he reassures himself by opening a collection of columns and bathing in "the words, the wonderful words, the crisp and pungent phrases, the sharp staccato sentences." As a triumphant example, he quotes Leitner's description of the Bay of Pigs invasion as "'a marine operation that brings to mind the genius of Philip II and Medina Sidonia.'"
All very mordant, to be sure; but while Leitner was on Q Street flipping through Bartlett's, real people on both sides were fighting and dying at Playa Giron. The contrast between their story and Leigner's fey response is too much for this frail novel to support. A chapter later, a student radical, stuffed with straw, is led onstage to denounce Leitner as "the archimperialist of our time." Felix responds suavely, "My dear boy, don't be an ass." For once, I quite agreed.