Over the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve come to read a great deal more American literature than I ever used to. I love it. There can be something so easy, so eloquent, so unhurried about the American literary voice. Authors know how to write books with big ambitions that don’t then fuss and strive over the way the story gets told. The narrative gives it to you straight. So when a new publisher approached me with a quartet of interlinking novels, set across four decades of life in America and reflecting the changing historical and social landscape of the times, I was very curious. I’m often not keen on chunksters, but I am interested in writers like John Updike and Richard Ford who have produced series of novels featuring the same protagonists. Plus, the author had been one half of the writing duo behind Hill Street Blues, one of those iconic television shows that you sort of know about even if you haven’t seen it (well, that’s my situation). I felt the omens were good.
The Meritocracy Quartet is really a series of novellas, as three of the four books are only 160 pages in length. They feature a group of friends who met at Yale and who either come from money or make money as the stories progress. Lewis writes that he wanted to track what happened to a generation who, back in the sixties at the height of American optimism, were considered to be the brightest and the best of their age. The first novella focuses on the hero of the group, Harry Nolan, and his glamorous wife, Sasha, Our narrator, Lewie, is Jewish and uncertain of his place in the group, lacking the background of entitlement that his friends share. He is in awe of Harry, who he is convinced ought to be the next President, and secretly in love with his wife. The group have come out to the Maine coast to spend a weekend on the country estate belonging to one of their friends. Harry is going out to Vietnam shortly and this is their way of saying goodbye. Only a tragedy occurs that weekend that will blight the lives of the friends in unexpected ways and have repercussions across the next three decades.
Each of the following novellas takes as its focal point a particularly eventful moment of the 70s, 80s and 90s and charts the development of the characters. The second follows Lewie into a strange consciousness-raising cult, headed by Joe, a powerful older man who sets himself up as the guru of the group, but whose actions often seem unkind and provocative. The group is holding a special event over the Christmas week, which Lewie is dreading, and quite rightly so as it turns out. The idea is that all the members will stay awake for the duration of the week, dealing collectively with whatever comes up in their minds. Inevitably, disaster occurs. The third book finds Lewie now in California, making a very successful career as a screenwriter. This book is essentially about his relationship with his father, who left after an acrimonious divorce when Lewie was nine. Lewie’s father was a television producer, and it’s clear that writing has been Lewie’s way of being close to him, of having some kind of relationship. Only now, their situations have been reversed, and Lewie is successful and his father has fallen out of the charmed inner circle. Making peace with the insufficiency and insecurity of his childhood culminates in surprising decisions for Lewie about his career and his direction in life. The final book tells the story of another of the friends, Adam Bloch, who builds a mansion for his new family out on the Maine coast near where the first book took place. Lewie attends Adam’s wedding there, then leaves the country for 18 months. When he returns, the house has been burnt to the ground, and the book retraces the story of what happened.
I felt the experienced hand of Jeffrey Lewis in the way each book picked out a highly engaging scenario, one in which you know disaster is approaching and you await unfolding events with trepidation. For me, the best part of the quartet was the voice of the narrator. Lewie has no faith in himself, no genuine self-esteem to rest his weary desires upon while he figures out answers. He’s the natural observer of the group, sensitive, idealising, insightful, and over the course of the novels you see him grow and develop. Here he is in the first book, with Sasha, Harry Nolan’s wife:
‘I’ve told you that I loved her, but not that I had never done anything about it. I had been to their wedding. I had watched it all happen. I had watched it all happen all the way. And that wasn’t going to change now. She had a book with her, something I didn’t expect, an old bestseller with the dust jacket missing, the kind she might have found on a painted shelf in the room where they were staying. I tried again to look at her as little as possible, or anyway not so often that she’d notice. When I was with Sasha alone I felt myself turning at angles, as though to leave so thin a side of me turned to her that I wouldn’t be seen, as though all of me were a private part to be covered up. She said something about it getting warm out. The others weren’t back. She got up and took her sweatshirt off and laid the book on it. Sasha’s voice was small like her mouth. She wasted few words and what she said was unadorned. She said that she was going to take a walk. Really, her words were like Shaker furniture. And what seemed like an afterthought, her asking me to come along.’
Now, two things I should mention. The first is that these novellas are evidently memoir, but fictionalised. The second, is that the memoir element belongs to an ongoing meta dimension that some readers may find a bit odd. The first and the last books in the quartet are the most conventional narratives, the middle two books have certain eccentricities, not least the intrusion of the ‘Jeffrey Lewis’ of the novellas discussing in the third book how he thought about presenting his story, what structure it should take. The second book is written in stream-of-consciousness, which for me was the least successful aspect of the whole quartet. I found that second book a bit hardgoing, but I didn’t mind because generally I loved the voice and was engaged in the events taking place. There is, however, very little dialogue in any of the quartet, which I found surprising, given that the author is a screenwriter and the dialogue when it comes is wonderful. Instead, these feel like oral tales, Lewie just sitting back and chatting to his reader, recounting the events in an easy, laidback way as if they were at that moment surfacing in his memory. So you could say that the entire quartet is written as a monologue rather than a narrative, with moments of reported speech. This worked well for me because I loved that voice, and I wanted to know what would happen to the characters. I never found it the least disconcerting (and really it’s not what you’d call experimental), but I can see that the wrong expectations might get in the way.
I think the books work really well all together, because it’s like an ongoing saga. But if you wanted to try Jeffrey Lewis, read the first of this series, Meritocracy; A Love Story. It’s a beautiful little book in its own right, and a wonderful evocation of an era, an ideology and a generational strain of hope, not to mention a vivid reminder of how it felt to be taking the first few adult steps in the world. And now I feel I ought to watch Hill Street Blues!