By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times
5:00 PM EDT, June 28, 2013
Craig Nova's new novel is a bit of a literary oddity. It's a sequel to the novel that helped propel Nova's career to new heights — 30 years ago.
"The Good Son," published to great acclaim in 1982, told the story of Chip Mackinnon, a World War II vet who comes home to find his social-climber father, Pop, manipulating him into a marriage that will improve the family fortunes. Pop also guides Chip through an Ivy League education and a career in the law. In "All the Dead Yale Men," the law is also the chosen field of Chip's son Frank and Frank's brilliant daughter, Pia.
A generation has passed since Nova first took up the Mackinnon family saga. And a generation has passed in the fictional Mackinnon world too, with young Pia poised to become a fourth generation of Mackinnon lawyer. She's the East Coast intelligentsia personified — about to graduate from Yale, she knows she's a cinch to get into Harvard for law school.
As the book opens, Chip is a lush who approaches his everyday life with the reckless abandon of the fighter pilot he once was. He's a university professor teaching future spies the intricacies of international law and mixing cocktails.
Chip has also been cheating his son out of part of his inheritance. He's a delightfully drawn character, a Falstaff at one moment and a Iago at another. The air of decadence and dread in the Mackinnon universe soon envelops Pia too — she considers derailing her ascendant career for the love of a young, grungy huckster.
"The Good Son" was a wonderful meditation on ambitions, love and parenthood. "All the Dead Yale Men" takes up those themes at the beginning of the new century, when it's as hard as it has ever been to be father. "No matter what anyone says, it's a high wire act right up to the end," Nova writes. "A daughter wants a father, and a father wants to be just that, and if he falls, if he shows that he is a moral klutz, it is terror for all concerned."
In Nova's universe, being a parent is all about keeping secrets. Fathers and mothers protect their children by deceiving them, and they fear the revelation of their own peccadilloes will cause them to lose the love of their progeny. Shame leads the fathers in Frank's orbit to do desperate things — early in "All the Dead Yale Men" he tries to rescue a friend whose fear of a minor sex scandal has led him to want to jump off a bridge.
Nova is especially adept at drawing dark characters, and having their darkness creep up and catch you by surprise. He creates a vivid portrait of well-off New England and the Delaware River Valley, with often-moving descriptions of the natural world. The maples are "in full leaf" and the lichen "copper-colored, green and flaky" on the old stone walls. Then Nova fills these backdrops with seemingly normal and successful people who become, from one moment to the next, desperate, manipulative and self-destructive.
Pia wants to give up law school to follow her seedy boyfriend. To try to save his daughter's brilliant future, Frank goes deeper into the more unsavory precincts of Boston, places he already knows well as a prosecutor. The police procedurals that play out in the background of "All the Dead Yale Men" aren't especially satisfying and don't always feel organic to the novel's characters. Still, fans of "The Good Son" will enjoy seeing the Mackinnon family's obsessions play out in the noir landscape of the early 21st century.
Nova also reveals secrets from generations long passed, adding one back story from the war years, and a twist that carries one hidden strand of the Mackinnon family story forward to the present, revealing truths that are at once unexpectedly sordid and all too human.
In between, Nova's protagonist and his story often meander — his characters are as adrift as people are in real life in the early 21st century. Frank follows a wandering bear, talks to a jaded police officer who says he can help cover up a suicide, and allows himself a moment of introspection at a Burger King at Harvard Square. There is great realism and authenticity in all these moments, though one can't help but feel "All the Dead Yale Men" isn't as precise and cutting a portrait of its era as "The Good Son" was.
All the Dead Yale Men
Counterpoint: 352 pp., $26
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