James Wallenstein plays tricks on us in his first novel, “The Arriviste.” This story about business gone bad opens with a scene of suburban suspense. The new guy on the block, Bud Younger (his name tells you his role), seems to be stalking his wealthy, middle-aged neighbor, Neil Fox (that name, too, provides a clue). Is Bud just an affable upstart looking for a mentor? Or is he trying to take the older, more successful businessman down?

Neil, the narrator, is as gruff and unlikable as Bud is friendly. He’s wary of Bud’s intentions. Should he trust him? They live in Dunsinane: Is Neil playing the role of Macbeth? Is Younger standing in for Malcolm? Wallenstein keeps these questions open through to the end. That’s the trick, and it’s a mean one — both clever and annoying — to suspend the resolution for so long.

Neil owns property and maintains offshore accounts. Bud, who moves nearby just as Neil’s wife leaves him, insinuates himself with Neil’s shady brother, and eventually the three of them set up shop on a Caribbean island, making deals with the local pols for manufacturing and real estate (though the details of these businesses are never spelled out). Neil tries to keep his relationship with Bud strictly business, but he gets drawn into a pas de deux with Bud, who keeps appearing at his house unannounced. Neil refuses invitations to his new neighbor’s parties, only to stumble over at the last minute, despite his better instincts. Bud introduces Neil to his sexy employee Cecilia, with whom Neil is entranced. But is she also Bud’s lover?  

The plot promises to pick up only to be perennially becalmed. But plot is just one of Wallenstein’s concerns. He loves set pieces outfitted with period details from the 1970s: cranks for car windows, Jack LaLanne health spas, afternoon newspapers, station wagons, telexes, the new Madison Square Garden and everywhere — in the trains, bars and houses — cigarettes. These props are strewn through scenes of manly pursuits: Characters drive, swim, play tennis, mow the lawn, dance. They remain at arm’s length, but we’re diverted by the cinematic atmospherics of these dreamy scapes.

Besides, this novel is in the details. When Neil is awakened one morning by the phone, he thinks, “Another diabolical particular: how the timbre of a ringing phone can seem to change in a series of identical rings, how the friendly invitation of the first ring becomes a plea by the fourth and a threat by the sixth, turns brittle by the eighth and menacing by the twelfth.” “The Arriviste” is stocked with such objects, onto which Neil projects changeable meanings. Just like that diabolical Bud: He rings the same way every time, but Neil always hears something different.

Trubek is the author of “A Skeptic’s Guide to Writer’s Houses.”


By James Wallenstein

Milkweed. 298 pp. Paperback, $16