A well-off New Yorker finds comfort in his love for his sons after his business fails and his wife leaves him
A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living: A Novel. By Michael Dahlie. Norton, 281 pp., $23.95.
By Janice Harayda
Does it ever make sense to give up a beloved family tradition? Michael Dahlie offers surprising answers in his witty and intelligent comedy of manners, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living.
Arthur Camden cherishes his hereditary membership in the Hanover Street Fly Casters, a fictitious fly-fishing group founded in 1878 by his great-grandfather and 11 other patrician businessmen. Those pre-Freudian bluebloods weren’t too self-conscious to name their Catskills lodge Maidenhead Grange, though the club always barred women from the premises. And for decades that’s been fine with Arthur, who has looked forward to passing his membership on to his oldest son and seen the group’s annual Meeting-in-Full as the highlight of his year.
Then Arthur faces a series of calamities fostered by his sweet and vulnerable nature, which includes a lack of self-awareness that would have allowed him to anticipate the disasters. His family business goes bankrupt. His wife of 32 years leaves him. And he accidentally burns down Maidenhead Grange while lighting a fire in an ill-maintained chimney in order to seduce a date who insisted on seeing the lodge.
All of this might have devolved into a pseudo–P. G. Wodehouse novel full of absurd middle-aged or older men throwing trout heads instead of breadsticks. But Michael Dahlie takes a gentler approach as Arthur tries to regroup in the face of dismay of the Fly Casters and the bold sexual reconnaissance missions of his ex-wife, Rebecca.
“I hear she slept with absolutely everyone, and during your separation, no less,” an acquaintance tells him. “Most people have the sense to wait till the final paperwork is done. But from day one it was like she was on Spring Break.”
Amid such embarrassments, Arthur finds solace in his requited love for his sons, in the support of a few loyal friends, and in small pleasures such as the pine-needle liqueur he discovers when, hoping a vacation will help, he visits a boyhood friend in France. And for all its comedy, this novel has a serious theme.
At a family gathering on Nantucket, Arthur wonders how to help his younger son, David, who can’t seem to keep a job:
“It was a perplexing question: what sorts of things does a father owe his son? On one level the answer might best be nothing, since too much parental help so often had such obviously bad results. Moreover, there was no reason a person shouldn’t try to make his own way in such an obviously prosperous nation. But in terms of smaller-scale help, a leg up in the world, a little nudge forward, you could say that a father should at least give his son what his own father gave him.”
Dahlie’s thoughtful exploration of such issues gives his book a depth unusual in comedies of manners, which often ricochet from one bright line to another. America abounds with men blindsided not just financially but emotionally by the economic meltdown, and if Arthur has more money than most, he struggles with widely shared questions: How did I get into this fix? How can I get out of it? How will my losses affect my children? Many people who have stopped reading their 401(k) statements might profitably transfer their attention to this enjoyable novel.
Best line: A comment by the friend whom Arthur visits in France: “If there’s one thing the Swiss are good at, it’s running rehab centers. It’s like the Minnesota of Europe.”
Worst line: “Not unlike the outrage over Arthur’s distaste for salmon sandwiches and lobster Newberg, Arthur’s father was often worried ‘for the boy’s own good’ about one thing or another that he felt made Arthur look absurd.” The sentence doesn’t scan well grammatically, and the three Arthurs don’t help.
Consider reading also: Guiseppe Pontiggia’s Born Twice, a novel of fatherhood that won Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize.
Janice Harayda wrote the comedies of manners The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks