In his twenty-ninth book of fiction, Louis Auchincloss has chosen to write about the most publicized (if not productive) pursuit of Reaganesque capitalism: the engrossing game of corporate takeovers. The novel’s subject, matching its title in trendiness, would seem to provide an ideal occasion for this prolific lawyer-novelist, who is sometimes regarded as the trustee, or administrator, of the moral and social inheritance of “Old” New York, to dramatize once more that favorite theme of his—the conflict between honorable practice, as defined by an inherited ethos, and sleazy opportunism, whether indulged in by a brash upstart or by “someone who should know better.”
The yuppie of the title is Robert Service, a thirty-two-year-old associate in the respected law firm of Hoyt, Welles & Andrew, who is on the point of being promoted to a partnership. His mentor and conscience within the firm is Branders Blakelock, a famous trial lawyer of the old school, a clubman and golfer whose interest in the boyishly good-looking young man may well, Service suspects, contain an unconscious element of homoeroticism. His moral conscience at home is his wife Alice, who has known him since they were children. At issue in the takeover in which Hoyt, Welles is currently engaged is a shredded memorandum, pieced together, which has been surreptitiously obtained from the wastebasket of the president of the “targeted” company—a personal memorandum so potentially damaging to the company president that it might be used to force a settlement or to launch a stockholder’s suit to unseat him. Should this piece of what is euphemistically termed “abandoned property” be put to such use? Service can hardly wait to do so, but Mr. Blakelock, who finds such tactics obscene, won’t hear of it.
At home, Alice Service also questions her husband’s advocacy of such dirty tricks. Here is Service’s defense:
The trouble with you and Blakelock is that neither of you has the remotest understanding of the moral climate in which we live today. It’s all a game, but a game with very strict rules. You have to stay meticulously within the law; the least misstep, if caught, involves an instant penalty. But there is no particular moral opprobrium in incurring a penalty, any more than there is being offside in football.
After their client loses, Service begins to wonder if he is with the right firm after all. Soon he is plotting to start a firm of his own, taking with him the most promising young lawyers from Hoyt, Welles & Andrew. This plot succeeds, Mr. Blakelock disowns him, and Alice asks for a separation.
Dismayed but undeterred, Service pursues his ruthless course, ridding himself of his most troublesome rival and “reorganizing” his social and sexual life. He takes up with a counterpart in greed, a well-connected young widow, Sylvia Sands, who provides him with an entree into what is “obviously the highest” society in New York. More elaborate temptations are in store for him in this exalted sphere. Meanwhile, Alice, like some disconsolate…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.