The burdens of elegance and honor

Stories from inside an American dynasty

I can't decide whether this news spurs me to action or sends me back to the chaise longue with a bowl of cookie dough: At 87, Louis Auchincloss has just published his 60th book. To add insult to injury, it's really good.

Speaking to The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, Auchincloss explained his prolific output with a little Mary Poppins wisdom: "By mastering the ability to use five minutes here, 15 minutes there, I picked up a great deal of time that most people allow to drift away." And I bet the dishes never pile up in his sink, either.

If you're interested in using your time more wisely, try investing a few hours in "East Side Story," his latest graceful novel about an upper-class family in New York. It's the kind of book that Edith Wharton fans have been waiting for, but that description risks making him sound like some updated knockoff. If you enjoy Jane Austen, you'll love "Bridget Jones"! That's not what Auchincloss is up to.

In an elegant, unpretentious voice, he writes about moral values, not in the contemporary sense, as a code for homophobia and preemptive strikes, but in an older sense, as the struggle to live a decent life among the noble and trite demands of family, society, and one's own heart.

This is, of course, the concern of much literary fiction, but there are still thoughtful readers (yes, you, way in the back) who don't want detailed descriptions of sexual depravity in order to contemplate the dimensions of a moral life (à la Alan Hollinghurst or Tom Wolfe). For such readers, there is Auchincloss, and they're well served.

"East Side Story" follows the development of the Carnochan clan, which came to New York from Scotland before the Civil War. Each chapter focuses on a different family member, moving through six patrician generations. That structure suggests excessive weight and maddening complexity (Is Peter the second cousin or the ex-brother-in-law?), but Auchincloss glides through all this in just over 200 pages, and he's not interested in demanding the tedious detective work too many sagas require. There's a helpful family tree up front, and each chapter is plainly labeled.

The Carnochan fortune was originally based on the sale of thread, a fitting metaphor for the lines that run through this family for more than a century. The patriarch, David, "was a granite pillar of respectability ... a success at each of the few things he undertook." His son notes that he also "stripped life of every aspect of color and charm that it might have possessed," but that bitter characterization never appears in the official family history - not because it's shameful, but because it's irrelevant.

David's descendants, which included an advantageous number of males, "were all able either to make money or to marry it." By the late 20th century, an old maid who realizes just what an extraneous twig she's become on the family tree notes that "the Carnochans seemed dedicated to their own permanence." Each generation extends the founder's success, reacting to the variables of history - from the Civil War to the Vietnam War - in ways that increase their honor and fortune.

But within the granite mansions and exclusive clubs, we meet men who feel naggingly inadequate and women, often very witty women, who have relinquished love and passion for cool practicality and decorum. These American aristocrats aren't crying for our pity (unlike, say, Michael Ovitz, who recently complained in court that having to accept a $140 million severance package was like being "pushed out the sixth-floor window"). Members of the Carnochan clan want to do the right thing, but that's often not easy to do - or even to determine.

In a particularly incisive story, a prominent lawyer during World War II contemplates how to realign himself with America's new liberal ideals to improve business. Perhaps he should drop his German clients ... or defend those poor Japanese-Americans.... But nothing he tries brings him the respect he craves. "How was it possible that people somehow suspected that he did not give much of a hoot about Japanese internment?" he wonders. "Wasn't it the action and not the inner motivation - or inner fantasy (for that was what it often was) - that mattered? Evidently not."

The younger family members have their own challenges. Suspended between two modes of courting - for love or for social engineering - they constantly second-guess their own motives and the motives of everyone interested in them. Even the most successful marriage carries with it a vague sense of disappointment that the potential for romance has been somehow compromised by such unromantic self-consciousness.

A melancholy melody runs through these stories, the muted anguish of crushed hope, but Auchincloss knows how to vary that tune for both relief and depth. One sensitive brother who lives his whole life brooding in the shadow of a domineering sibling finds with his wife a degree of devotion and understanding that's surprisingly moving. And there's a wickedly funny story about a conniving woman whose future seems ruined when her husband gives up alcohol for God.

Part of the charm here is sociological, the chance to move with a sympathetic but critical guide through a powerful, largely hidden section of American culture. (The novel ends before very rich people wanted to humiliate themselves on TV.) But through all these tales, Auchincloss is also tracing the nation's character. There are other veins buried in the moral geology of America, of course, that would reveal entirely different features, but this one is followed with illuminating care. If you've been complaining that they don't write novels like they used to, here's proof that thoughtful, tasteful fiction is still alive and well.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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