Small-sized reviews, raves, and recommendations.
This is the second Auchincloss novel I’ve read. Diary of a Yuppie (1986) read like a hyper-polished Henry Jamesian version of American Psycho (1991). The Partners (1974) proceeds like a season of Mad Men (AMC, 2007—2015), but taking place in a white shoe corporate law firm on Wall Street instead of Don Draper’s Sixties ad firm.
At Shepard, Putney and Cox, Beekman “Beeky” Ehninger, a senior partner, navigates the crucible of corporate law, a challenging marriage, and upholding his personal moral code. The novel moves forward stately and staid, but never boring, each chapter like a long short story. Beeky is less the main character than the lodestar around which other minor bodies revolve. Administrative reorganization, merger threats, and ethical lapses harry the firm across stories tragical, comical, comical-tragical, and so forth. After setting the scene in the Nixon-era Big Apple, Auchincloss sets several chapters decades earlier when Beeky was a green college graduate. A couple chapters recount his early career as an aspiring clerk in the firm of Shepard & Howland. As with Diary of a Yuppie, Auchincloss pilots the course between the interconnected world of high finance and high society, each populated by peacocks and thugs.
Throughout his career Auchincloss has been compared to The Master, Henry James. Don’t let that praise intimidate you, because Auchincloss writes in a style at once smoothly polished yet highly accessible. His high society types will make pepper their dinner conversations with references to personalities of Imperial Rome or seventeenth century Spanish playwrights. This might have proven a high wall to scale, but today there’s Google. An infinite encyclopedia at your fingertips.
That said, it would be churlish to write an entire review on an Auchincloss novel without a sample of the writing. While the later writings of Henry James are baroque labyrinths of indirection, Auchincloss can capture a character in a few short lines. In the first chapter, “A Kingly Crown,” Beeky seeks to reorganize Shepard, Putney and Cox, recruiting help among the senior partners. In order to create a firm within a firm, he must convince Dan Purdy. Describing Purdy becomes an exercise in the comical grotesque, more Addams Family than Henry Adams:
Dan Purdy, as Mrs. Bing said, looked like a monk. Austerity seemed to emanate from his tall spare frame like dry air from a desert. He was not, perhaps, a bad-looking man: his regular features and long, strong face might have been almost attractive but for an air of juicelessness that hung about him, a hard-baked clay quality that made one see his short stiff curly hair as a tonsure. Dan moved rapidly, abruptly, awkwardly. His voice was harsh and loud, and his laugh sounded like gravel on tin. But there was a tough humorousness in his cynicism, a trenchancy to his observations, a naked strength in his observations and actions that made him a leader, if not of men, at least of cliques.
If you are looking for a short novel – the hardcover barely cracks 250 pages – to scratch that Mad Men itch, The Partners is the novel for you. Auchincloss simultaneously reveals himself as a master of modern prose and in his ability to capture the zeitgeist of the era. In this case, through the character of Beeky and the partners of Shepard, Putney and Cox, the post-Sixties anxieties and frustrations at the fading morality of an older era. Memories of robber barons clash with a nascent feminism and concerns for pollution. The Partners is less about aging gracefully than the tragicomic attempts to pull off such a feat.