Saturday, October 23, 2004


By Jeffrey Lewis

Other Press, $18 cloth,164 pages


“They [your professors] told you that you were the brightest, most gifted generation they or the world had ever seen… .They [the commentators] told you that you were the most idealistic generation they or the world had ever seen… . You had come, they told us, to lead our society out of evil …”

So wrote Midge Decter, godmother of the neocon ancien regime, over 30 years ago (“Liberal Parents, Radical Children”). “You” was the Baby Boom, or more precisely, the students of the 1960s at the nation’s elite universities. The Best and Brightest. The Meritocracy.

It didn’t quite happen that way. Why not? Many reasons. My personal favorite: generational failure to heed Zeus’ warning to Narcissus: “Watch yourself.” Other, more complex explanations also pertain. And at least a few among the B&Bs more thoughtful senior meritocrats have taken to pondering all the virtuous and redemptive things that never happened.

Jeffrey Lewis went to Yale, Class of 1966, where he distinguished himself as Class Poet and managing editor of the Yale Literary Magazine.

After Harvard Law School and a brief stint as a New York City prosecuting attorney, he began a successful career as a television writer (Hill Street Blues and other series). His new novel, “Meritocracy,” is the first of a planned series of four, exploring the lives of real and putative B&Bs across the decades since Vietnam.

The plot is minimal. It’s 1966. Five new Yale graduates — two rough-edged Jewish scholarship boys, two preppies, and a newlywed with his bride — assemble for a final weekend. The bridegroom, Harry Nolan, is blessed above all others: son of a wealthy U.S. senator, wise beyond his years, innately charismatic, married to a woman much like himself, a future president if anybody ever was. Harry knows it. He has also volunteered for the Army, and may well be sent to Vietnam. The other major character, Louie, one of the Jews and a man given to complex ruminations on meritocracies of birth and attainment, provides the narrator’s voice. There are also periodic outside-the-story commentaries on history, sociology, and other vices and follies.

Louie’s secretly in love with Sascha, Harry’s wife. Sascha gets killed in an auto accident that weekend. Harry later dies in Vietnam.

If that ruins the plot, no matter. Message is what this book is supposed to be about. A message, couched too often in irony, on why the B&Bs blew it.

Louie and Mr. Lewis adduce several reasons. One is that merit and virtue aren’t quite the same thing. Another relates to that most inconvenient of wars, Vietnam. Nobody, least of all Harry, seems sure why he’s going. And nobody’s willing to discuss the matter too clearly, or their own stance regarding the war at all.

“Scenes that never were,” writes Mr. Lewis. “Turgid arguments over the correctness of the draft. Spirited arguments over the correctness of the draft. Hatching plans to go to Canada or underground or join some radical group.”

Not for these guys. Not when your whole moral sense of yourself depends on keeping it vague. Complaining, however, is OK. One of the men mutters that in order to string enough deferments together to make age 26, the induction cutoff, you had to do “stupid things.”

Later in the book, much later, Mr. Lewis presents a discovery that, in the history of the meritocracy, fits into the category: better late than never.

Those who put it on the line, for or against, have more in common with each other than those who waffle, posture, and minister to Number One. Quite so.

But Mr. Lewis then avers that the B&Bs failed to deliver because Vietnam simply took too much out of them. The genuine best were no longer there.

The rest were, well, either second-raters or burned out. Either way, it was over before it fairly began.

After encountering those words, I reread a passage by Dr. E. B. Sledge from his memoir of World War II service in the Marines, With the Old Breed. Sledge, an enlisted infantry veteran of Peleliu and Okinawa, has just learned of Hiroshima.

“Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us.” He did not conclude: Life’s over. He concluded: Life is beginning. Keep faith with the dead by not wasting it.

I subsequently interviewed Mr. Lewis. It was an awkward conversation, not unlike dozens I’ve had over the decades with my B&B peers (I was Yale ‘70). I asked him if there really was a Harry Dolan, Class of ‘66. He said no.

Harry Dolan represents less a person than an ethos far too demanding for those whose moral frame of reference is mere merit.

But, as they say on the island of California, that was then. This is post-then. And the question arises: What might the Baby Boom, or at least its senior meritocrats, yet do with this realization?

Philip Gold is author of “Take Back the Right” (Avalon/Carroll & Graf).

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