The Old Gringo
Each of these three very different novels has to do with politics, but each writer in his own way sees politics as destructive; and all three try to express the pathos governing a world that increasingly seems in other respects ungovernable.
Honorable Men is another of Louis Auchincloss’s honorable searches into the moral contradictions within what used to be our ruling class, those well-born WASPs who controlled much of the economy and managed its proceeds on Wall Street and in Washington. The leading character is Charles (“Chip”) Benedict, of Benedict, Connecticut, and Camden, Maine, St. Luke’s School (his grandfather was headmaster) and Yale ‘38. After law school at the University of Virginia and the command of an LST at Normandy, Chip does a little corporate law in Manhattan before taking over the family glassworks, which, after cheapening the product a little, he sells to conglomerate in 1961. (This literally kills his traditionalist father.) After a brief interval of charitable trusteeship, while his wife drifts toward alcoholism, he goes to Washington as a special assistant to the secretary of state, where the story finds him in the late 1960s helping to conduct and justify the unpleasantness in South-east Asia.
The book carries an epigraph from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and like that earlier patrician, Chip tries manfully to meet the demands of his lineage. Unlike Coriolanus, however, he “could always fool people.” He never quite loved his domineering parents. At St. Luke’s he (reluctantly) accepts the homosexual advances of a classmate, Chessy Bogart, but saves himself by lying when Bogart’s other amours are found out. At Yale he attacks the Honor Societies in the News and vows not to join one, but on Tap Day he goes to Branford Court with everyone else and becomes the last man chosen for Skull and Bones (which for reasons of his own Auchincloss calls Bulldog). At Virginia, editing the Law Review, he finds that Bogart has submitted a partly plagiarized note for publication and self-righteously forces him to withdraw from school, on threat of exposure. He takes his marriage to “the most famous debutante in America” fairly seriously, yet he is continually unfaithful, though he draws the line at married women. His private reservations about Johnson’s war don’t hamper his public efforts to continue fighting it.
The world elsewhere that poor Coriolanus could never find is right there inside Chip Benedict all along. Bogart understandably thinks him a “devil,” but Chip’s wife Alida comes closer when she calls him a “fanatic.” Family and class have given him an idea of life as moral theater, in which the pursuit of goodness becomes more exciting if one privately tastes evil now and then. His private evil is ugly enough, but I’m afraid that his sense of public good often sounds stilted and naive. He thought our victory in World War II divinely empowered; seeing Nagasaki after the bomb suggests to him that his personal war with evil may be …
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