- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

In the summer of 1966, the main characters of Jeffrey Lewis‘ “Meritocracy,” the first novel in a quartet intended to chart the progress of a generation, gathered for a weekend to say goodbye to their friend Harry Nolan who was about to go to Vietnam.

For the most part children of privilege — Yale, nice cars — they pondered the reasons why Harry, the son of a senator, would take such a step. They ask themselves whether Harry has enlisted in order to advance his own political career and are baffled by the possibility that there are other, deeper reasons for his decision.

In that first novel, the story of the farewell weekend and what ensues is told by a character named Louie, who adores Harry and Harry’s gorgeous wife Sascha.

Later, when Harry is killed in Vietnam and Sascha is killed in a car accident, readers have no doubt that in the coming books it will be Louie’s fate once more to make sense of it all.

Mr. Lewis, the award-winning novelist and screenwriter (he wrote and produced “Hill Street Blues” for six years) is a born storyteller with a gift for creating immensely sympathetic characters. One assumes that “Louie” is a stand-in for Mr. Lewis and that is fine because the observations that lead his narrative along are as soothing as they are insightful.

So it is, in “Adam the King,” the final book in Mr. Lewis’ Meritocracy Quartet (“The Conference of the Birds” and “Theme Song for an Old Show” precede it), Louie has a new — and final — set of events to make sense of. At the book’s opening, there is a Maine wedding, but this is no ordinary wedding.

Adam Bloch, the groom and Maisie, his bride, are in their ‘50s. More to the point, Bloch is a billionaire — he’d “grown rich as a tick on a dog in California and begun giving it away because he didn’t know what else to do” — who has set about building a mansion in Clement’s Cove, a Maine coastal village where BMW and Volvo owners find themselves living near local plumbers, shopkeepers and lobstermen.

But even with all his wealth and his new marital status, the shy Adam is a troubled man. As readers learn by page 6, “When he was young, Bloch was the driver when Maisie’s sister Sascha died.” When Maisie asks for a lap pool so she can work out and keep the Hodgkin’s disease that afflicts her at bay, Adam decides to approach Verna Hubbard, his neighbor with an offer to buy her small plot of land. From Adam’s perspective, he is simply trying to make room for the pool and the offer he makes is a generous one. But to Verna and her friends, people of considerably more modest means who have lived in Clement’s Cove for generations, the offer is, in part, an affront.

Reading this unusually brisk-paced and simply-told tale one is reminded of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, no doubt and in no small measure because of Bloch’s Gatsby-esque dimensions. But the story is unique to its time and place because of Bloch, his grasp of tragedy and his burdened attempts to rise above it.

“Even falling in love, for Bloch, was something like a penance. He married the sister of the girl he killed. Though he would remind himself not to say it that way, not to place more blame than he could bear. The sister of the girl who died in the crash. There. Was that better? She came from the best of families. She was fiery in ways that he could never be. She filled in the missing pieces of himself. Her red hair flew around. She was or had been sick and needed taking care of. She wasn’t intimidated by all the money. She knew a million things he didn’t and she had a million graces he lacked, so many that she could throw them away, profligately. She had lived a life without nets, had even cut the ones she was born with. She was a little crazy, and he was surely not, he longed for the champagne of madness. She was the sister of the girl he killed, marked out to him like a blazing star by fate.”

The counterpoint to Maisie and Bloch’s relationship is the one between Verna and her boyfriend Roy, and at its roots this is many ways a familiar story of conflict between haves and have-nots. It is also a story of the grievously unnecessary escalation of events anchored in vain and foolish misapprehensions. However, with the exception of those who plan and execute the tragic event at the center of this final book, the characters here are to a person people of decency and conscience. A gripping and ennobling book.

ADAM THE KING

By Jeffrey Lewis

Other Press, $21.95, 224 pages

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