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September 20, 2004

And He Did It With Expert Timing

by Ron Hogan

Friday night found me in the basement of the Upper East Side townhouse that headquarters David Ziff Cooking, where Judith Feher Gurewich, the publisher of Other Press, threw a small cocktail party in honor of Jeffrey Lewis and his first novel, Meritocracy. The group was an eclectic mix of television people, many of them from the Lewis clan, and writers like Wendy Lesser and Lawrence Osborne.

The novel, which is the first in a project quartet of stories spanning four decades, has turned out to be even more relevant than Lewis might have anticipated. Set in 1966, the story centers around a group of recent Yale graduates getting together for one final weekend before they go their separate ways. One of them, Harry Nolan, is the son of a California senator, and is planning to enlist in the Army and go to Vietnam not because he believes in the war, but because he thinks he needs to be seen as doing his duty for the sake of his future political career. Lewis obviously knows what he's playing at, and takes the issue by the horns; the narrator claims that fellow Yalie George W. Bush was an admirer of Nolan, and makes direct reference to the Vietnam "plans" of John Kerry and Al Gore. The problem is that Nolan and his young wife, Sascha, are by far the most compelling characters in the story; the Nick Carraway-like narrator comes close, but that's largely a function of his proximity to Nolan. And the news that Harry and Sascha won't be around doesn't necessarily bode well for the three sequels. But we'll see: Lewis has a gazillion Emmy nominations, and two awards, for his script work on Hill Street Blues, and Meritocracy shows that he knows his way around the tight kernel of a story. In subsequent novels, he might be able to flesh out his talent a little further and turn the supporting characters here into more than window dressing for a neatly conceived Gatsby variation.

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