Power plays in the corridors of culture

The Golden Calves, by Louis Auchincloss. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 213 pp. $17.95 Louis Auchincloss has averaged a book a year since his first novel was published, under a pseudonym, in 1947. Forty-one books. It would be a prodigious output even without the articles that appear in a steady stream in publications ranging from American Heritage to Architectural Digest to The New York Review of Books. Or without the Wall Street law practice that America's best-known dual-career writer has maintained over those four decades.

In his latest book - his 31st work of fiction - Auchincloss returns yet again to his favorite terrain, the board rooms and drawing rooms of the New York aristocracy.

There's a different twist, though. The outwardly placid but inwardly seething institution at the center of the novel's main convulsions is not, as in most Auchincloss works, a law firm, bank, or blue-blood family; rather, it's a struggling museum of North American artifacts. The author is no less sure-footed than usual, however. As the longtime president of the Museum of the City of New York, he knows the exhibit world.

The Museum of North America, a second-class institution lost deep in the shadows of Manhattan's great repositories, finally has the prospect of a legacy large enough to catapult it into the front ranks. With this money the museum's lawyer-chairman would be able, by creating a truly noble temple of art, to fulfill his oft-thwarted ambition ``to be somebody,'' and nailing down the legacy would ensure the permanent elevation of the institution's young acting director.

Their challenge is to persuade the museum's leading benefactor, an elderly spinster, to bequeath her vast collection of Americana and its accompanying endowment to the museum without restrictions.

They succeed, but through ethically dubious means. Their machinations nearly crush a young woman and leave a curator at the museum badly bruised. But the men's sin, if not crime, rebounds against them.

A subplot deals with the efforts of one of the museum's trustees, a wealthy, aging collector of American paintings and their European antecedents, to resolve a conflict between his financial obligations to his children and what he sees as his responsibilities to his collection.

The novel, in short, is about acquisitiveness: not just the banal greed for money or position, but also the more complex yearning for that thing - art - whose inherent worthiness dignifies and partly redeems the human failing. It has been said that behind every great fortune is a great crime. Auchincloss points out that behind every great collection of art is a great, and not always benign, grasping.

Beyond even that insight, however, and as the book's biblical title suggests, the novel is about the substitution of art for religion. In the words of one character, ``now that the churches have fallen into disuse ... the museums have become the true temples. The new godless are beginning to glimpse the terrible and wonderful truth that there is nothing on earth to worship but art.'' Yet art, the characters find, may be a false deity.

As ever, Auchincloss's style is a bit starchy and overbred. When did you last see a novelist twice use ``osculation'' for kiss, once in dialogue? Indeed, dialogue has never been one of the author's strong suits. His characters get preachy, and he has no feel for the colloquial. Today not even the Groton- and Yale-educated descendants of Knickerbocker families talk in the arch and allusion-filled manner of Auchincloss's people.

But these are small matters. Auchincloss handles his materials with his usual confidence and craftsmanship. Too often dismissed as a ``novelist of manners,'' he remains one of our best writers about money, power, and status - and their erosive lappings on the human soul. If, as some critics indicate, modern literature has little interest in those crossroads where clash commerce and conscience, society and self-respect, it is a loss for modernism.

James H. Andrews is on the Monitor staff.

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