In his first novel, “Wise Men” (Little, Brown, 335 pages, $25.99), Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Stuart Nadler tells a story through the eyes of a son whose father has grown larger than life.
The story begins when Arthur Wise’s son, Hilly, is in high school. Arthur’s law practice is, at first, nondescript, but everything suddenly changes when he wins a sizable settlement against an airline. Gaining a national spotlight, Wise moves his family from New Haven closer to New York City, attracting richer clients. Hilly resists, wanting to stay in New Haven with his friends.
Nadler succinctly portrays Hilly’s disenchantment: “I despised him for moving us. That was the beginning of everything for him and me.”
Hilly draws his line in the sand. His next few years find him short of open rebellion, but far from being a model son. He is determined to be a person apart from his father and the family’s opulence.
The family moves to a mansion called Bluepoint, where Hilly strikes up a friendship with Lem, the black caretaker. Then he meets Lem’s teenage niece, Savannah.
Nadler depicts the way the relationship between Hilly and Savannah moves from sympathy for her poverty to his being smitten in her presence. It is a feeling that will follow him the rest of his life.
After college, Hilly discards job opportunities that would bring wealth. Instead, he becomes a newspaper reporter. Nadler weaves history into his tale, putting Hilly in the middle of the 1960s civil rights movement.
One of Hilly’s news assignments is in a small town where a black-owned business was vandalized. Serendipity is allowed in fiction as long as it works, and Nadler uses it to full advantage when Hilly discovers Savannah living in the town.
Nadler seems well acquainted with dysfunctional families and unrequited love. Because of his father, Hilly was destined to fall in love with the poorest girl in town. However, Nadler also knows that no one is able to shed what he is in order to fit the mold of someone he loves.
In his 2010 short story, “Visiting,” Nadler wrote about an estranged father visiting his teenage son. The father takes the son to visit his own father, and all three discover that the misunderstandings of one generation have passed on to the next. Nadler has already mined a topic that could serve him well in future writings.
Steve Novak is a freelance writer in Cleveland.