Monday, March 13, 2006

`Lapham' Returns, Banker Douses Fires, Superheroes Soar: Books

`Lapham' Returns, Banker Douses Fires, Superheroes Soar: Books

March 13 (Bloomberg) -- Harry March is a cantankerous writer. He lives on his own island in the Hamptons, where his only companions are a West Highland terrier and a stone statue of his ex-wife reading the New York Times.

Splendid isolation suits the hero of Roger Rosenblatt's novel, ``Lapham Rising'' (HarperCollins, 243 pages, $23.95). So naturally the author shatters Harry's peace on page one.

``Bang bang bang bang bang,'' the book begins.

A social-climbing playboy named Lapham is building a McMansion just across the water. March goes mad and begins to think his dog, Hector, is talking to him. ``I'll pray for you,'' says Hector at one point.

Rosenblatt, a long-time essayist for Time magazine, has written 10 books of essays and nonfiction and penned four off- Broadway plays. ``Lapham Rising,'' his debut novel, borrows from William Dean Howells's 1885 novel, ``The Rise of Silas Lapham,'' about a Vermont paint tycoon who masquerades as a Boston Brahmin.

This updated version satirizes the Hamptons, the New York summer retreat for celebrities and executives. Its little towns have ``the seductive apathy of a debutante, but none of the appealing cruelty,'' Harry grumbles. Chitchat at dinner parties turns on ``the best Pilates class on the planet,'' he sneers.

``Lapham Rising'' doesn't amount to more than the sum of such deliciously caustic observations. Nor is it meant to. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

Siege Weapon

Lapham's house is a castle. It includes a moat, a movie theater and a ``Tilles Blowhard,'' a jet engine-powered air conditioner that sounds ``like a lion's roar amplified over a vast public-address system.''

March plans to lay siege to this edifice of ego with a huge homemade catapult dubbed the ``Da Vinci.'' He fails, though the book is all the funnier for it. This is a must-read for seasonal renters and year-round residents alike.

Like Lapham, Bill Schoenberg lives in a ``gilded shack in the boondocks.'' His is a $3.3 million turreted house in the unfashionable Hudson River village of Harristown, New York, the setting for Nicholas Weinstock's novel, ``The Golden Hour'' (Morrow, 275 pages, $24.95).

Schoenberg is 46 and overweight. After 19 years of marriage and a two-decade run as an investment banker on Wall Street, he has ditched his job, left his South African interior-decorator wife, vacated their 11-room Manhattan penthouse and moved upstate with his collection of vintage wine. Why? Weinstock holds back that secret and keeps you reading.

`Hokey Civilization'

In Harristown, Schoenberg discovers an endearingly ``hokey civilization.'' He also finds a new sense of purpose, as well as camaraderie, when he joins the ragtag volunteer fire department.

Weinstock, who once served as a fireman, ably describes the routine bravery of those who rush into burning houses. By the finale, Schoenberg has gained a self-esteem that means more to him than the adulation he won as a banker nicknamed ``The Bull.''

New York fiction these days is stocked with characters reassessing their lives. Consider Nathaniel, the 28-year-old creator of a comic book called ``Passivityman'' in Deborah Eisenberg's fifth collection of short stories, ``Twilight of the Superheroes'' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pages, $23).

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the view from Nathaniel's 31st-floor Manhattan loft included the World Trade Center and was ``like looking down over the rim into a gigantic glass of champagne.'' After the terrorist attacks, the city became an ``open wound.'' Nathaniel realizes that his hip ``Passivityman'' isn't quite the hero Americans need post-9/11 and abandons the comic.

Real People

Eisenberg introduces us to dozens of such thoughtful people. We meet stoic Jewish immigrants living in the Midwest, a lonely divorcee traveling through Italy and a widowed art-gallery owner, among others. All cope with real problems: aging, unstable family members and a loss of confidence.

Throughout these six masterful stories Eisenberg proves that you don't necessarily need a novel to describe an entire life. Sometimes, 35 pages will do.