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‘Wise men’: A son who can’t escape his father’s shadow

 wise men by Stuart Nadler

wise men by Stuart Nadler

Being given $70 million probably doesn’t do much to firm up a young man’s backbone. That’s how much Hilly Wise, the narrator of Stuart Nadler’s novel Wise Men, has in his bank account. Only he won’t touch it.

It came from his father, Arthur Wise, a big-shot litigator who’s made a fortune on plane crashes, and Hilly regards it as “blood money.” He rejects the gift and the giver without ever ceasing to need them both.

Arthur, unlike the son, is a self-made man who belies the stereotype of the East Coast liberal Jew. For one thing, he isn’t liberal, as his ties to the Nixon administration suggest.

For another, he’s racist. He calls the family’s black servant, Lem Dawson, “boy” to his face and worse behind his back (and – the year is 1952 – pays him $8 a week).

So he isn’t thrilled when Hilly develops a crush on Lem’s niece, Savannah.

Wise Men stretches out over more than six decades. Nadler divides it into three parts: 1947-52, when Hilly is an adolescent; 1972, when he’s 38; and the present, when he’s in his 70s. Each part centers on an encounter between Hilly and his lifelong obsession, Savannah.

Like Hilly, Wise Men sets itself admirable goals. Nadler seeks to address American racism and the corrosive effects of money via two characters, Hilly and Arthur, who are both, for different reasons, unlikable.

Bloomberg News

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