Elaine Kendall

The Golden Calves by Louis Auchincloss Hardcover (Houghton Mifflin)

Book Review

The Golden Calves by Louis Auchincloss Hardcover (Houghton Mifflin)

An uptown writer in a downtown age, Auchincloss has written 31 novels of life among the well-born and well-bred; his non-fiction books tending to be just as Olympian. Leaving East Village decadence and midtown miseries to his juniors, he continues to concentrate upon the world he knows and understands best; the rarified reaches of high finance, law, and philanthropy; a world in which appearances are often deceiving and splendid facades conceal base motives, where marriages can still be morganatic and invading capital is unforgivable.

The acknowledged literary heir of Henry James and Edith Wharton, Auchincloss shares their social and economic preoccupations, writing with cool dispassion and unflinching insight. Like his predecessors, he is subtle, ironic and

exceedingly worldly, and like them, he excels at plot, character and setting, sometimes creating the impression that dialogue is a necessary but uncongenial part of the novelist's task. When James' conversation was dense and convoluted; Wharton's formal and elliptical, the reader made generous allowances, assuming that characters from another era were entitled to express themselves in sentences as fussy and confining as their clothes or as over-decorated as their houses.

Though Auchincloss works in that tradition, he's also our contemporary, and the sort of phrases that logically emerged from the lips of Fledda Vetch or Newland Archer seem outlandish when they're spoken by 32 year old Anita Vogel or her hardly older male colleague, Carol Sweeters, in "The Golden Calves". Even granting that Anita is a shy museum curator and lives with that institution's elderly benefactress instead of in an apartment of her own, it's still hard to imagine someone born in 1956 rejecting a proposal by saying "I could never even think of marrying a man who could lock out in the cold the creature who had been his pet and friend". (Sweeters had heartlessly abandoned his cat after enjoying its company during a summer at Newport) It's equally impossible to visualize Sweeters defending his dubious pre-Columbian acquisitions by leaping out of his chair and shouting "The new godless are beginning to glimpse the terrible and wonderful truth that there is nothing on earth to worship but art!".

Aside from such stilted dialogue and orotund thoughts recorded by the omniscient narrator, The Golden Calves is a deft and intricately plotted story of chicanery, intrigue, revenge and self-interest, played out within the walls of an institution uncannily like The Museum of the City of New York, a repository for the heirlooms and artifacts chronicling the history of Manhattan.

As president of that actual museum, Auchincloss is in a uniquely wonderful position to invent its fictional clone, not only using his own broad knowledge of Americana but his familiarity with the variety of people who are the providers, guardians and caretakers of that heritage. Though not every object in either the real or imaginary museum is impeccably authentic, there's no doubt that every character has a counterpart in life. Miss Evelyn Speddon, whose will stipulates that her vast but uneven collection must be kept forever on permanent display at the museum, is representative of the conservative Old Guard, while Mark Addams, the ambitious acting director who envisions popular 'megashows,' makes a deviously clever Young Turk. Sidney Claverack is appropriately villainous as the Chairman of the Board and Peter Hewlett is a deadly accurate portrait of the collector too aesthetic and unprincipled for his own or anyone else's good. Of them all, only Anita Vogel, the somewhat wan heroine, seems neglected by the author, who saves his best lines for the most ruthless actors in this melodrama about the complex connections linking art, avarice, altruism and ambition.

Elaine Kendall (Los Angeles Times)

Selected Works

Book Review
1. Non-Fiction
Provocative social history--thoughtful, witty, and surprising.
Dealing with the basics of American life.
Time-tested methods of women-watchers applied to men.
4. Article
from Santa Barbara News-Press 4/03