There is something oddly elegiac about this first novel -- not just because of the time it chronicles, a '70s full of prosperity and promise, innocent of burst economic bubbles and Twin Towers terrorism -- but also because of a sort of novel it harks back to, the quiet, troubling story told by a mature and reflective narrator looking for its meaning.
The time James Wallenstein writes about is reminiscent of the commuter culture of John Cheever's stories of the '50s. And the novel itself calls to mind an even earlier romance of a man on the make, "The Great Gatsby."
From a present-day retirement in Key West, the narrator, Neil Fox, recalls his brief and fraught business relationship with a new neighbor in a wealthy suburb of New York City. Neil is damaged. A child has died, his wife has left and his teenage daughter is predictably difficult and distant. He's in some kind of legal difficulties in his financial firm, from which he's eased out by the end, but not without ample compensation.
But it is Neil's partnership with his at once appealing and repulsive brother Mickey that draws the neighbor, Bud Younger (and yes, the names are a bit heavy-handed; Neil's suburb is, for instance, Dunsinane). Neil and Mickey provide seed money for start-up businesses -- apparently in such a way that, succeed or fail, the Fox brothers win. And Bud has an idea.
Caught up in this business arrangement is a woman, Cecilia, who works for Bud and becomes involved with Neil, and how these two relationships are entangled is one of the mysteries of the novel. Little seems to happen -- parties, meetings, drives, trips to a Caribbean Island (called Aggregente!) -- but lives, loves and fortunes are on the line.
Wallenstein is amazingly good at conveying all that matters in a look, a remark, an exchange. He is inspired at conjuring states, from jet lag to passion; at capturing characters in an instant ("He was twitchy and snapped his fingers at his sides, waiting for the next moment, the next line, the next episode -- next, next, next"), an image ("hairs that poked out of his shirt like filings drawn by a magnet").
If, finally, his story is more suggested than enacted, more reflected on than directly felt, then that may be more a matter of our literary moment than of Wallenstein's prodigious talent, which, like his narrator, belongs to another time. "With the section-ends of the rails clipping beneath us like the second hand of an accidental clock," Neil says, "we seemed to be heading into the future, except that since I was riding backward, I imagined instead that I was backing, counterclockwise, into a lovely past that unfurled itself in retreat from the setting sun."
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Wisconsin. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.