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'The Hazards of Good Fortune' review: Seth Greenland's droll New York novel has heart

"The Hazards of Good Fortune." by Seth Greenland.

"The Hazards of Good Fortune." by Seth Greenland.

THE HAZARDS OF GOOD FORTUNE, by Seth Greenland. Europa Editions, 614 pp., $20 paper.  

It used to be bad enough that the tabloids downgraded people to types and real life to melodrama. Now social media has compounded the problem, further shredding context and nuance, tempting its users to turn current events into morality plays with whatever good guy/bad guy/victim scenario fits their political formulas.

One can easily imagine the outrageous only-in-New-York events chronicled in “The Hazards of Good Fortune” as the kind of racy and race-inflected scandal that summons wave after wave of incredulous posts and self-righteous tweets. A black basketball superstar is caught in bed with the white middle-aged team owner’s younger wife and is then chased by the owner who accidentally runs him over with his car? Among the likelier, less vicious tweets you’d expect: “It’s like something out of a novel!”

Seth Greenland’s droll, multifaceted page-turner has already been compared in scope and subject matter to Tom Wolfe’s 1987 bestseller, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” But Greenland, the author of four previous novels who has written for stage and screen, shows far more heart than Wolfe-ian snark in conducting his own grand tour of the upper tier of New York society, set somewhere in the middle of the Obama years. However acerbic “The Hazards of Good Fortune” is toward its many characters, there’s also consideration, even grace, in its use of personal detail.

The “master of the universe” here is Harold Jay Gladstone, an urbane, philanthropic real estate mogul who owns an (unidentified) NBA franchise based in Newark. At the start, Jay is on the precipice of even greater things: a spectacular high-rise housing development in his native Brooklyn, an offer to give the commencement address at his daughter Aviva’s college graduation and a looming playoff berth for his on-the-rise team, provided it can count on its mercurial star player D’Angelo “Dag” Maxwell to focus on his game instead of his salary and whatever his ex-wife is up to 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.

But, as Yeats warned us all a century ago, things fall apart: Jay’s wife, Nicole, announces her need to have a child with him, a violation of their prenuptial agreement. Beside which, Jay tells her, “I have a child. One is plenty, believe me.” Aviva, the child in question from his previous marriage, is in deep rebellion mode, bringing politics way left of her liberal dad’s and a black girlfriend to an acrimonious Passover Seder. Jay suspects his less charitable cousin, Franklin, a partner in the family business, is stealing from him. Meanwhile, a young white policeman in White Plains panics and shoots a naked black homeless man to death, setting off a chain of events that eventually place a politically ambitious district attorney (is there any other kind?) with marital problems of her own into Jay’s orbit.

Which comes, of course, after Jay finds Dag and Nicole having sex in his bedroom, punctuated by Jay’s astonished remark, “Why does everybody in this family need to have sex with black people?” Because it’s the 21st century, you needn’t be told that a) the whole scene is captured on Nicole’s smartphone, and b) it goes viral. 

If Greenland were a circus performer, “The Hazards of Good Fortune” would be the equivalent of juggling several sharp objects while walking a tightrope. Yet he makes it look easy and most, if not all his characters are granted dimension. More importantly, his novel of contemporary manners does what such novels are supposed to do: Remind its readers that the best and worst of us aren’t always what we appear to be — on our the screens of our devices or on the front pages.

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