FALSE GODS By Louis Auchincloss Houghton Mifflin 214 pp., $20
FOR almost half a century, Louis Auchincloss has been delineating the lives of upper-class New York society folk, from hard-driving entrepreneurs to faded scions of distinguished old families, from ambitious social climbers to formidable matriarchs and their melancholy sons with artistic ambitions.
The author of more than 30 works of fiction ("The Rector of Justin,The Partners,I Come as a Thief," and "The House of the Prophet," to name but a few) as well as nonfiction works on assorted subjects (Edith Wharton, Henry James, Cardinal Richelieu, the Vanderbilt era), Auchincloss has done much of his writing while pursuing a full-time career, from which he has now retired, as a Wall Street lawyer.
Auchincloss writes about the world he knows. His admirers value his clear, old-fashioned storytelling: characters involved in plots that require them to make ethical choices and to live with the consequences of those choices. Detractors, however, have found his treatment of these themes glib and superficial.
The six novellas contained in his latest book, "False Gods," well demonstrate Auchincloss's strengths and weaknesses. Each novella is named for a pagan god or goddess who is supposedly the ruling passion that affects - or afflicts - the protagonist of the story in question.
Roger Carstairs, the troubled hero of "Ares, God of War," begins his career as a gentlemanly Virginia attorney in the years before the Civil War. A proud Southerner, he firmly distinguishes between his concept of the Southern heritage embodied in Jeffersonian rationalism and the fanatical and violent attitudes espoused by Southern "firebrands." Yet, following a duel with one such firebrand, Roger's life takes a series of strange turnings.
After serving in the Civil War (on the Southern side), he heads north to make his fortune in New York, where he becomes the kind of brilliantly conniving lawyer that is not only a far cry from his early character as an honorable Virginia aristocrat, but is also looked down upon by his respectable New York colleagues. The story proposes that "anger rather than disillusionment or opportunism - is the motivating factor behind his transformation. It's an insightful and believable explanation, but taken by it self, a little too pat.
The other five novellas have similarly complex and intriguing story lines. The narrator of "Hermes, God of the Self-Made Man" tells a complicated story of youthful friendship, romantic rivalry, discreet anti-Semitism, and betrayal that spans three generations, beginning in the Gilded Age and ending with World War II. Auchincloss's accomplishment here is in the gradual revelation of how an appealing young man grows into a hardened old egotist.
The slightest work in the collection, "Charity, Goddess of Our Day," concerns a society fund-raiser tempted to commit an unethical act on behalf of a good cause. Equally brief (almost), but more substantial, the story "Athene, Goddess of the Brave" deals with the lifelong anxieties of a likable man intimidated by the upper-class ideal of manliness and dogged by the fear that he simply does not have what it takes.
The two remaining novellas - in some ways the most interesting - are about the conflict between the aesthetic impulse and the demands of society and organized religion.
"Hephaestus, God of Newfangled Things" tells the story of Gilbert Kane, an architect and longtime bachelor, whose marriage to a brightly perceptive young woman brings an abrupt halt to his penchant for designing Palladian villas and to his Platonic, but romantically charged friendship with the youngish wife of his elderly uncle. Gilbert's marriage - and his new, ultimately less satisfying, career as a designer of modern buildings - are shown to be instigated by his mother, a forceful woman whose dream of
going on stage was thwarted by her own parents.
"Polyhymnia, Muse of Sacred Song" is narrated by a defrocked priest with the Wildean name of Reggie Turner. A convert to the Roman Catholic religion, Reggie faces a severe crisis of faith when he meets a devout but heartless society woman who calmly sacrifices her husband's "sacrilegious" novel on the altar of her religious principles and who views with equanimity the fate of a daughter whose untimely death "saves" her from the sin of marrying a divorced man.
But the strongest influence on Reggie, when all is said and done, seems to be neither his passion for literature nor his yearning for faith - nor even his compassion for other people - but his slavish devotion to his beautiful, self-important, frivolous, domineering mother, who had blithely followed him into the Roman Catholic faith because she admired the splendor of its ceremonies. This novella, like the others, contains enough in the way of raw material to furnish a full-length novel, but instead of b eing fully explored and developed, it is merely relayed, like a choice anecdote at a dinner party.
One of Auchincloss's strengths, however, is that none of the stories he tells, whatever its shock value, is anything but utterly believable. His observations, as far as they go, are accurate.
Oddly enough, however, if there is a single theme running through these six stories, it is not so much the power of the passions and impulses embodied in the mythical pagan deities as the power that distinguished "old" families have over their children, most of whom are shown to invest their wealth and status-generating forebears with semidivine authority.