“So, your father is Arthur Wise,” she said. “What’s that like?”It is 1952 and Stuart Nadler's Wise Men (Little, Brown & Company/Reagan Arthur, 2013) opens with the cinematic and terrifying image of a plane falling out of the sky. It is an accident that will change everything for the Wise family. Arthur Wise, an ambulance chasing lawyer wins a precedent-setting lawsuit against the airlines. His sudden fortune takes the family from a hand-to-mouth existence in New Haven, Connecticut to unimaginable wealth and a beachfront home on Cape Cod, where Arthur's resentful and slightly rebellious son, Hilly, befriends his father's African-American property manager and then falls for his pretty niece, Savannah.
"Problematic," I managed.
You can predict a bit where this might head. Wise Men is full of dramatically appealing if somewhat familiar elements - a historic era that conjures up a lot of emotion, a hateful and bigoted father, a rejecting and resistant son, racial injustice, a love of baseball, unrequited romance, unfinished business, and a struggle with lifelong guilt - but Wise Men is kept interesting exactly because Hilly is deeply flawed and, despite some effort to be one, is really not a hero. Hilly is compromised by his own weakness, by his strained relationship with his father, and his tortured relationship with money. While he is plagued by guilt and obsessed with reconnecting with Savannah, there is no simple redemption for Hilly. What is revealed in the end explains much but doesn't uncomplicate anything, and I admired the writer for creating a story that leaves none of the key players completely blameless. It's a better story because of it.
My favorite part of the novel, however, wasn't Hilly's story. Rather, I found the most exciting writing in Nadler's descriptions of a minor character, Savannah's father Charles. Charles was a former Negro League pitcher who had one shining evening playing for the Milwaukee Brewers at a time when black players were unheard of in Major League baseball. In searching for Savannah, Hilly tracks Charles down in a small town in Iowa, pitching in a local contest:
"In his mind, he was at Wrigley or at the Polo Grounds or in the Bronx, and he wasn't pitching to some washed-up Little Leaguer from some Iowa hamlet, some man who'd given up his aspirations two decades earlier and who worked now driving a forklift or pressing tin or washing the killing floor of a pork processor. No, Charles was twenty still, with a rubber arm and boundless confidence, and he hadn't ever had a daughter, hadn't been to Massachusetts or even heard of Bluepoint or the Emerson Oaks or the Wise family. He was just a pitcher with a curveball no one could touch."I could easily have read much more about Charles. I hope he gets his own novel someday.
My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary electronic review copy of Wise Men.