A vain but witty struggle against the rising ills of consumerism

Roger Rosenblatt's first novel valiantly assails - the Hamptons?

Roger Rosenblatt's fans - and he has many - are probably wondering why it has taken this witty and prolific writer so long to tackle the satiric novel.

As a columnist for Time magazine, Mr. Rosenblatt has won two George Polk Awards and numerous other honors. He has also racked up kudos in the world of television, where his essays - aired on public TV - have been awarded both the Peabody and the Emmy.

Add to these 11 books (nonfiction and essays) and four off-Broadway plays, and it does indeed seem surprising that only now has Rosenblatt decided to turn his hand to a novel.

One can only assume that cantankerous Harry March, the protagonist and ultra-acidic narrator of Lapham Rising, has been gestating in Rosenblatt for years, awaiting the right moment to emerge.

And this - our era of McMansions, consumerism, and subzero stainless-steel kitchen appliances run wild - may indeed be the time for readers to embrace an antihero ready to battle a world in which real estate seems confused with religion.

There's nothing particularly lovable about Harry March - a once famed writer who has now become so choleric and eccentric that his wife Chloe and their three children have all fled, leaving him alone on an island called Noman, located, naturally, in that bastion of conspicuous worldliness, the Hamptons.

(March gave his island its name in eager anticipation of the day when someone would finally ask him what Noman was and he could reply, "Noman is an island." The moment does finally arrive, but the payoff is perhaps smaller than March had wished.)

Actually, March is not quite alone on Noman. Chloe left behind their dog, Hector, a West Highland terrier, who appears cuddly and eager to the rest of the world, but, when all alone with March, holds up his end of an ongoing and fairly erudite dialogue that could best be described as snarky.

One of their main points of contention is March's fierce belief that the 20th century was a time of evil, an era that produced an ugly and virulent form of materialism.

For March, the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world is his soon-to-be neighbor Lapham (any comparisons to Silas Lapham, the nouveau riche protagonist of the William Dean Howells novel are encouraged) who is building a 36,000-square foot summer home across the bay.

The Laphams, March explains, are an old-money family who "continued to reproduce like inbred collies until their heads became so pointed that there was no room for brains, and yet fortunately, no need."

Their four-story house will include a movie theater, sun and moon decks, a room to display Lapham's collection of antique asparagus tongs, and a state-of-the-art air conditioner called the Tilles Blowhard, designed to cool the entire 8-acre estate - even as it deafens all within a several mile radius.

March, not too surprisingly, despises Lapham and his ilk. As the novel progresses, details slowly emerge of the plan March has devised to both wreak destruction on Lapham and strike a blow for civilization. (Man has not always been evil, March believes. The 18th century was a splendid time, he insists, toward which he vainly yearns to turn the clock back.)

But even as March struggles to bring about Lapham's downfall, he must continue to endure a world (the Hamptons, that is) populated with characters like Kathy Polite (pronounced "po-LEET"), a voluptuous but entirely evil real estate broker with a Southern drawl, along with other Hampton types - some evil, others just hapless and none too bright.

March inveighs throughout the novel against the uncivil, uncultured, and idiotic world he sees rising around him - right up until his inevitable defeat.

A reasonable reader might protest the degree to which the book bludgeons one with a single message ("consumerism is bad"). And it would also be possible to quibble with Rosenblatt's decision to pillory Hamptonites (a sport utterly indistinguishable from shooting fish in a barrel).

But the far simpler choice would be just to read the novel and enjoy a few good belly laughs along the way. Rosenblatt is exceedingly clever and he knows the world whereof he writes. So readers will be best advised to allow March to be the martyr - and sit back and enjoy the show.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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