- - Friday, April 13, 2012

By Louis Begley
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95 384 pages

Schmidt Steps Back” is Louis Begley’s third novel about Schmidtie, a millionaire lawyer-turned-foundation chief. In the previous, Schmidt was enjoying a passionate affair with Carrie, a Puerto Rican waitress 40 years his junior. Here we meet her again, married and pregnant, possibly with Schmidt’s child, possibly with her husband’s. Whatever the case, Schmidt is happy to fund the education of this and any other children Carrie might have. He is also happy to support his rebarbative and unrewarding daughter Charlotte through mental and marital breakdown.

And he’s generous to Alice Verplanck, the beautiful widow of a former colleague. Schmidt hopes to marry her, and the novel begins as she arrives at his home in the Hamptons from Paris. Thirteen years have passed since he unsuccessfully wooed her. What happened before and after that episode? Why, despite their ardor, did they part? Will he now win her hand?

These questions are answered as Schmidt looks back, picking up and stitching in threads of events, and reviewing the first decade of the 21st century from the perspective of a 78-year-old who still has all his marbles and a considerable sexual drive.

This novel is a page-turner, not because its characters are complex - though some of them are certainly attention-grabbers - nor because the story is gripping. In part, it’s because Mr. Begley’s record of the life of the very wealthy kindles the fascinated attention of the less blessed among us.

Schmidt can not only afford to support Carrie’s offspring and bail out his ungrateful daughter, but he can fly to Paris or London on a whim, wine and dine at any restaurant he likes, give lovely jewels and flowers to the women in his life and socialize with the wealthiest and most influential of his neighbors in Manhattan and the Hamptons.

When his own millions are not quite enough, his billionaire friend Mike Mansour is ready to help with a private jet across the Atlantic, a Rolls-Royce at the end of the journey and string-pulling when necessary.

Just as “Downton Abbey” has fascinated viewers with its portrayal of life in an English stately home of the Edwardian age, so “Schmidt Steps Back” entices readers with its report of life as lived by the lawyers and financiers who make the big bucks today. These depictions invite us to fantasize about what it would be like to be very rich. As Mr. Begley tells it, it would be very comfortable, very empowered, very interesting - though as we know from the sages of yore, not necessarily very happy.

The other reason that this novel holds the reader’s attention is that while Schmidt is stepping back - onto the stage of life, rather than into the fray - he is also reflecting, often sharply and intelligently. Sometimes this is on his own behavior and motives, but more often, it is on other people. Some get an easy ride. For example, his pals are all lovely people, peccadilloes notwithstanding. But he is also adept at skewering greed and spite, notably in Renata Riker, his daughter’s poisonous mother-in-law.

He’s good, too, at noting deviousness among both friends and enemies. Most importantly, he brings a lawyer’s trained mind to taking new information on board and applying it. So, for example, he is startled by what he learns about Alice’s husband, but he deftly weaves it into his tapestry of the past, and especially into his analysis of her behavior.

While Schmidt is telling the stories of Alice, Charlotte and Carrie, he is also observing the world, especially America. Sorrow is his main reaction. Sometimes he sorrows for calamities such as Sept. 11. More often, he sorrows for the state of the nation, scorning the tawdriness of President Clinton and the inadequacies of President George W. Bush. Readers may or may not agree with him, but they will certainly be engaged one way or another by his overview of recent history.

But while gloom shadows Schmidt’s account of the last decade, he is no Jeremiah: Doom does not darken the future. Personally, he thinks he will live another 10 years, telling 63-year-old Alice that should his natural powers fail, “father’s little pills” will help, and together they can ensure that neither feels lonely or cut off from life. This optimism makes “Schmidt Steps Back” an oddly cheerful book despite the sometimes disastrous events it records. It’s not a novel that will inspire the purest or deepest thoughts, but Mr. Begley’s narrative skill and command of the details of life among the wealthy will charm a quiet evening or a tedious journey.

• Claire Hopley is the author of “The History of Tea and Tea Times” (RW Publishing).

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