With A President nicknamed ”Poppy” in the White House, Americans are once again expected to heed the curious rituals of the Ivy League. At least that’s one way of accounting for Geoffrey Wolff’s novel of manners about undergraduate life at Princeton during the late ’50s. Not that this precisely rendered, bittersweet reminiscence of the Princeton institution known as ”Bicker” — and as fraternity rush everywhere else — takes a worshipful stance toward the world it portrays. Quite the opposite. Simply that the novel cannot help evoking a strong response in readers uncomfortable with the idea of an American aristocracy.
Since he has suspect social credentials much like Wolff’s own — as readers familiar with his memoir The Duke of Deception will note — protagonist Nathaniel Clay is an unlikely candidate for one of Princeton’s better eating clubs in those days. Besides coming from unfashionable Seattle and having attended a public high school, Clay has a Jewish mother and a drunken father who compiled a legendarily bad academic record and incurred massive debts at Princeton before dying under embarrassing circumstances. ”It’s a story one hears,” his aristocratic roommate informs him.
Were Nathaniel not so naive he’d know better than to expect social acceptance. But the boy is smitten with it all. Smitten with the beauty of the Princeton campus, with the brilliance of his professors, and most of all with the stunning self-confidence and seeming generosity of his well-connected roommates: Booth Tarkington Griggs III and Pownall Hamm, graduates of St. Paul’s, oarsmen in the varsity shell, and the most sympathetically rendered preppies since Holden Caulfield. Within no time, they’ve got Nathaniel crashing debutante balls and dancing to the Lester Lanin orchestra.
What Booth and Pownall can’t quite bring themselves to tell their roommate, however, is that regardless of his awe and admiration he simply won’t do. Not in their eyes, of course, but in the eyes of their fellow aristocrats with whom they cannot imagine making an open break. In scenes as painful as they are funny, Wolff measures his protagonist’s discomfort with the detail and exactitude of a seismograph. If Nathaniel the would-be clubman suffers humiliation, Nathaniel the suitor — hopelessly in love with a very beautiful and socially ambitious Briarcliff girl — suffers guilt as well. ”He was ashamed to have acted badly,” Nathaniel realizes, ”and he was ashamed that she had acted badly, and he was ashamed to love her, and he was ashamed to be ashamed to love her.”
Unfortunately for the novel’s latter third, the uncertainty that makes an undergraduate appealing is less becoming in a grown man. Leaving Princeton, The Final Club also leaves behind its sense of direction. Wolff gives the reader an episodic rendering of his protagonist’s 20 years since graduation, but apart from brilliant interludes like Pownall Hamm’s Alcoholics Anonymous confession to his classmates at their 10th reunion, The Final Club seems to run out of energy roughly 100 pages before it ends. The novel’s first couple of hundred pages, however, make it well worth the price of admission. B+