By William L. Morris
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Overeducated and underemployed.
It seems an apt topic for our times, especially now that women outnumber and outrank men at our great universities, only to be faced with maternity leaves that interrupt careers that often never start again.
You could pick on any good school but why not the Ivy League and then – for that matter – why not Yale?
According to Craig Nova, those nasty tricks taught at fraternities and secret societies at Ivy League schools when men ruled the roost gave men a leg up in business and the way they ran their personal lives. But as soon as those schools went coed, the bullying ceased because women don’t go out with bullies. Now generations of Yalies have to muddle through without this unfair advantage.
A better title for this novel might be “The Mackinnon Stain.” Nova is returning to the Mackinnon family of one of his best early novels, “The Good Son,” where the son is working through issues with eccentric parents. Now the son in the first book is the father and his son, Frank, is trying to do the same thing – not become his father. The fact that Frank’s daughter, Pia (another Yalie), is determined to end the Mackinnon Stain by not having children further complicates matters.
Rereading Thucydides and Marcus Aurelius does little to help our overeducated but underemployed public prosecutor, Frank. As his career founders he manages to live on the remains of his family fortune in a house near Harvard Square and a farm in the Delaware River Valley. His father, Chip, had difficulties with his father, Pops (these tricksters don’t even have real names). Like them, Frank went to Yale, but if the tricks were still being taught, he didn’t take to them. By the time Pia went to Yale the tricks were no longer taught.
Though the tricks are gone, the stain continues. Deciding not to use your education and your connections to get rich doesn’t spare you from your inherited nature. Frank is a great chess player and very competitive. He loves beating the con man Pia has brought home. Frank also has trouble with cars as did his father. The boyfriend suggests a cheap mechanic, Stas, who specializes in stolen parts. Frank feels strangely at home in his shabby office and he reveals how disappointed he is with his daughter’s choice. Soon the boyfriend stops showing up, and Stas says Frank owes him.
Lawyers are usually good at making tough phone calls, but Frank lets things slide. He shares Nova’s inability to connect the dots. The novel is sprinkled with dubious happenings. For example, when Pia suspects that her boyfriend has met an untimely end, she experiences none of the stages of denial and goes straight to her father’s library and reads him every assassination in Thucydides.
More unconvincing coincidences arrive with the appearance of Pauline, Frank’s hippie girlfriend from the distant past. Their relationship ended when she went to jail for breaking a jewelry store window so she could touch some diamonds, diamonds that she hoped Frank would get for her through legal means. Now decades later she happens to be great friends with Pia’s missing boyfriend even though they are worlds apart in age and lifestyle. Despite the fact that Frank ignores Stas’ requests for a return favor and talks with no one about it, Pauline figures out that Frank has a problem with Stas and that she can solve it. So 25 years after their last meeting, she reveals to Frank that the man he was supposed to have had killed is alive. Ergo, Frank owes Stas no favors. Even more surprising is that Frank does nothing with this information until the day of his daughter’s wedding.
Unlikely as these coincidences are, they help relieve Nova of the burden of being enslaved to the narrative. He simply moves on to another story, leaving the wreckage of the last in the back of the reader’s mind. We have no choice but to focus on the Mackinnon Stain, which is the only thing holding these stories together.
What Nova really wants to write about is nature. Much of the novel is set on an old family farm near the Delaware River. It takes three to four hours to drive from Harvard Square to the Delaware River, but people are going back and forth as if by private jet. But Frank needs the Delaware River because it has bears. He has learned nothing about living from the human predators from whom he’s descended, so he has to learn from the few predators left in nature and those females – like his grandmother and Pauline – who are still in touch with nature.
His grandmother’s diary reveals the real genius of the family, the side that doesn’t simply mow down nature with guns and motorcars. It also helps Pia get over her obsession with the Mackinnon Stain. She’s convinced her children will have epilepsy because her cousin has fits. The grandmother’s diary reveals that the epileptic cousin isn’t really a Mackinnon but an offspring from an affair she had. Free of the Mackinnon Stain, Pia decides to marry a Harvard man.
But Frank isn’t stain-free yet. In order for the wedding to happen Frank has to kill the bear that has been wandering around his farm for years. The Girl Scout camp that shares the farm won’t let them use the only room that’s big enough for the reception unless Frank kills the bear. It’s been terrifying the campers.
The bear doesn’t put up a fight. He’s as miserable as Frank, relegated to eating other people’s garbage and chasing the occasional Girl Scout through the forest.
Frank has two tasks remaining. He finally buys Pauline the diamonds she wanted so many years before. But she casually flushes them down the toilet. Women like her don’t want to own nature; they want to be it.
Men like to own nature; they retreat to it; they sell off parts of it; they shoot things in it, but women like Frank’s grandmother and Pauline worship it. This goes back to Eve, whose love of nature endeared her to Adam after the fall. And it’s what saves Frank.
The Mackinnon Stain finally removed, Frank and his wife are in an airplane flying the polar route to Rome. This is her reward for not asking why the police were shooting Stas and his hoodlum friends in the graveyard outside the church where their daughter was being married. Over the North Pole the pilot buzzes a polar bear running over “dry riverbeds.” It doesn’t matter that there are no dry riverbeds at the North Pole and that pilots don’t buzz anything after 9/11.
If you don’t realize by this time that facts run through Nova’s fingers like water in an unspoiled stream, that he’s only interested in the surface of these tiny rivulets he compares to mercury, you don’t get Nova – or bears for that matter.
All the Dead Yale Men
By Craig Nova
337 pages, $26.00
William L. Morris was the News’ first poetry editor and now lives and writes in Florida.