Writing fiction set in the near-history of the mid-20th century is a sticky task. Characters may seem too familiar or mundane to captivate the more adventurous reader, and settings can lack the sparkle of ancient foreign courts and exotic lands. Nevertheless author Stuart Nadler holds our interest while deftly plunging us into a 1950s quagmire of racial tension, class confusion, and sexual awareness.
The story revolves around Hilly Wise. We first meet him in 1947, at the age of 12, the son of a lackluster attorney who somehow finagles himself into the limelight by representing the broken families of Boston Airways plane crash victims. Dad’s newfound notoriety lifts the family out of a hardscrabble existence into the realm of the nouveau riche, and they aren’t really sure what to do with all that money. Hilly’s mother orders a bewildering assortment of luxury items that arrive by the truckload—Christofle stemware, crates of Florida oranges, tweed garments from Oxley & Hawlings, English gin, beach furniture—while Dad lords it over everyone who crosses his path, including Hilly.
Initially, the most downtrodden of the senior Wise’s victims is Lem, caretaker of the family’s freshly acquired seaside home in Cape Cod, who appears to have been inherited along with the property. Dad boasts that he got the old man on the cheap—and he works him like a draft horse. But it’s not until Hilly meets Savannah, a young black girl, that the father’s secrets come to light, shattering all of their lives. This multigenerational novel is brilliantly conceived and masterfully written. Wise Men is an irresistible debut novel that serves as both a love story and a brutal indictment of the cruelty born of wealth and greed.