Principles of Interest

Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits
By Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin
223 p. $18.95.

Though it’s subtitled A Novel in Portraits, Louis Auchincloss’s slender new book of fiction—his 32nd—reads less like a novel than like a memoir. Certainly any reader who seeks to identify the book’s narrator with its author faces few impediments: Like Auchincloss, Dan Ruggles is born into a rich, upper-class New York family, grows up during the Depression, and becomes a successful novelist and Wall Street lawyer. But Fellow Passengers is only peripherally the story of Dan Ruggles. In fact, it contains 10 stories—arranged in roughly chronological order from the 1930s to the early 1960s—in which nine other people and one couple take turns playing the title parts. Some of these fellow passengers in Dan’s life—among them the devoted Aunt Mabel and the flamboyant Uncle Theo—are relatives; some, like the heavy-drinking short-story writer Althea Sartoris, are friends; and some, like the shy, self-effacing lawyer Clement Ludlow, are business associates.

Most are native-born citizens of Auchinclossland, perhaps the late 20th century’s nearest equivalent to Edith Wharton country. Centered in Manhattan, and incorporating such tony outposts as Yale and Bar Harbor, it is a demesne of Anglicans and agnostics, of highfalutin men’s clubs, geriatric virgins and grande dames, of “confirmed  bachelors” and ”Boston marriages.” And, needless to say, of money—lots of it.

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Dan fills a dual role in most of these stories, serving at once as a good-natured, unprepossessing friend to each of the principals and as a keen-eyed observer and commentator. Like Caraway, too, Dan has a strong sense of right and wrong, and his prime purpose in each story is to underline, in a gentle yet unambiguous fashion, the moral problem at its center.

“Abel Donner,” for instance, presents us with a lawyer whose code of ethics Dan finds unnecessarily stern and literal-minded, but whose momentary departure from this code for the sake of a friend compels Dan to speak in its defense. “Jonathan Sturges” depicts a gifted art curator whose ideas for the disposition of a rich widow’s art collection are at once esthetically superior to her own plans and contrary to her wishes; Dan, as the wid­ow’s attorney, must determine when his primary obligations lie.

Witty, charming and economical, these tales have the pithiness of biblical parables or Aesopian fables. There are no pretty, descriptive passages here, no stylistic fireworks, no personal revelations for their own sake; the dialogue, moreover, is uniformly cogent and uncluttered, and often quite formal. (These people say “shan’t” and routinely quote Shakespeare to each other.) Auchincloss does not question traditional systems of value and meaning; nor is he interested in personality except as it reflects character.

Does this mean that Fellow Passengers is old-fashioned? Yes, in the way that words like gentleman and rectitude are old-fashioned. Auchincloss has been called a novelist of manners, but he is more truly a novelist of morals, profoundly interested in the forms that temptation takes in Fifth Avenue penthouses and the hails of Ivy. Many contemporary novelists are drawn to the subject of millionaires and their money; Auchincloss’ concern, however, is not with wealth per se but with the ways in which rich people’s means of earning, preserving, spending and losing their fortunes illuminate the principles by which they live.

Questions of conscinece preoccupy him: What does a father owe his children, a lawyer his client? What obligations are implicit in friendship? What is the proper function of a museum? Bestriding the very different worlds of art and law, Auchincloss offers an ethical critique of both realms, skillfully identifying the distinctive ways in which virtue and iniquity tend to manifest themselves among “artistic” and “practical” folk, and making it clear that he has no more regard for narrowly esthetic sensibilities than for narrowly business-minded ones.

Complaints? At times the dialogue feels not only formal but unnaturally stilted: and some of the characters’ off-the-cuff literary references are hard to buy. Nor does one get to know Dan as well as one would like; Auchincloss might have come closer to Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North, in which attention to the appealing young narrator is nicely balanced with attention to the Newport plutocrats whose stories he tells.

But no matter. This book—novel, memoir, short-story collection, what-have-you—is at once a triumph of storytelling and an exemplary meditation upon the standards of conduct by which we live. Auchincloss accomplishes something that’s not easy. Even as he delightfully celebrates the voyage of life, he delivers a serious reminder of the responsibilities we all have toward our fellow passengers on the trip.