SCHMIDT STEPS BACK, by Louis Begley. Alfred A. Knopf, 369 pp., $25.95.
James Joyce opened a door, when he wrote "Ulysses," that we might never be able to close. Readers of Joyce's masterpiece may not have liked poor Leopold Bloom, but there we were, trapped in his mind, living through every wisp of a thought, every glaring insecurity, every detail of his life. Many male authors -- Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth and countless others -- stepped through that door, lay down on that couch and began talking.
Louis Begley has followed the character Albert Schmidt through "About Schmidt" (1996), "Schmidt Delivered" (2000) and now "Schmidt Steps Back" (not to mention a 2002 movie with Jack Nicholson). Schmidt owes his existence, his provenance, his literary DNA, to Leopold Bloom. Of course, the two men have little, outwardly, in common. Schmidt is rich. He is a WASP. His life contains more intrigue per square inch than Bloom would have had time for. The similarities between Dublin and the Hamptons are hard to imagine.
But Schmidt, now 78 and looking back on the past 10 years, is, like Bloom, a lost and defeated wanderer, much more likable and even more interesting to us readers than he was in his powerful days. His wife of 40 years has died; he has retired from his law practice and heads a philanthropic organization funded by billionaire buddy Mike Mansour; his young Puerto Rican waitress / mistress is pregnant and has just married her boyfriend; his selfish, entitled daughter and her grasping husband are about to have a baby; and Schmidt has fallen in love with the widow of an ex-partner, Alice, who is 15 years his junior. Schmidt is lonely. He is heartsick with love for Alice, who lives in Paris.
When the novel opens, Schmidt is waiting for Alice to visit him in Bridgehampton. He is also waiting to die but still wanting to live as he once did. He has finally reached the age when he realizes the importance of friends and family.
"Who is to say the game is not worth the candle?" he thinks, more than ever aware of his own vulnerability -- especially in the game of love. "Cowardice, he knew only too well, carried its own penalties: sour solitude and despair."
Begley, like Joyce, is a master of the quotidian detail. Every call Schmidt gets, every conversation, every drink (and there are so many), every present, every trip to the airport, is dutifully recorded until, like an old married spouse, we long for a little privacy. Schmidt knows what wine to order, what flowers to send, what restaurant to go to, but he is endearingly naive when it comes to sorting the wheat from the chaff in the people around him.
In many ways Schmidt's naivete reveals the growing gap between rich and poor in this country in the time period from 9/11 to Obama's election. The endless choice, the million-dollar gifts, the planes and the property are obscene and off-putting. Begley is not writing about the aristocracy; he's writing about the vulgar. Schmidt's anti-semitism and his automatic profiling (Bulgarians who wore the wrong suits at Harvard, etc.) are symptomatic of the increasing rancidity of the American melting pot. "Did that bastion of what the Hamptons had once been now open its gates to the occasional superrich Jew?" Schmidt wonders about the Meadow Club. "Tsk tsk!"
Begley, who splits his time between New York and Bridgehampton, writes about the landscape he knows best, which is any novelist's right. But the Schmidt books are littered with references that exclude readers who aren't from the Upper East Side -- Brearley, Petrossian, the Frank Campbell Funeral Home. These and other status symbols so important to the characters might at least be described, rather than dropped, like a name.
Still, "Schmidt Steps Back" is not Tolstoy, despite the carefully drawn social cartographies. It is not Joyce, whose Leopold Bloom had deeper, older roots in the world. Schmidt is no Lear, though his daughter Charlotte is every bit as venal as Regan and Goneril.
Schmidt is different from these and other characters like him, perhaps for the simple reason that he is American: more or less self-made, resilient, shallow, basically happy and capable of forgiveness. Begley writes with an admirable confidence -- for much of the book he does not even bother with quotation marks, so flimsy is the line between reader, writer and character. We inhabit Schmidt like an actor wired for animation. For this, as they say, You Gotta Love Him.