Mat­ters of Honor

Louis Beg­ley
  • Review
By – March 23, 2012

Beg­ley, author of About Schmidt and oth­er nov­els, offers an intrigu­ing account of three col­lege room­mates at Har­vard Col­lege in the ear­ly 1950’s, and their mat­u­ra­tion into men of the world. There is an under­ly­ing mys­tery, nev­er ful­ly clar­i­fied, and a series of mat­ters of hon­or” embed­ded through­out the sto­ry. The three are Sam Stan­dish, the nar­ra­tor, Archie Palmer, and Hen­ry White. Sam’s par­ents are low on the social scale, despite their dis­tin­guished fam­i­ly name. His alco­holic moth­er is a noto­ri­ous flirt, his alco­holic father holds a mod­est bank job, thanks to fam­i­ly influ­ence. Dur­ing his first school year, Sam is offi­cial­ly informed that he had been adopt­ed at birth, that his real parent­age remains unknown, and that he con­tin­ues to be the ben­e­fi­cia­ry of a trust fund estab­lished by his grandun­cle Horace Stan­dish, which will con­tin­ue to pay for his school­ing and will cov­er his col­lege costs, emer­gen­cies, and wor­thy con­tin­gen­cies. Archie Palmer, a much trav­eled army brat,” is a super­fi­cial, minor fig­ure, in terms of per­son­al­i­ty or activ­i­ty. Hen­ry White, a Pol­ish refugee from Krakow, hates his Jew­ish ori­gins, chang­ing his name and try­ing to make every­thing about him­self more Amer­i­can,” decry­ing what he calls Jew­ism.”

Among the young women in the sto­ry, Mar­got Hor­nung, a femme fatale, occu­pies a promi­nent place in Henry’s and Sam’s minds. Hen­ry, after grad­u­a­tion from law school, makes his way into inter­na­tion­al cor­po­rate law; aid­ed by a wealthy finan­cial manip­u­la­tor, he per­pe­trates a career-end­ing uneth­i­cal trans­ac­tion. Sam, a con­firmed lon­er, who suf­fers from depres­sion, becomes a promi­nent nov­el­ist; he remains a bach­e­lor. Archie’s wealthy par­ents buy him and his bride a cost­ly sports car, which he soon wrecks, killing both of them. Though there is some Jew­ish self aware­ness among the char­ac­ters, con­sid­er­ing their Jew­ish or part-Jew­ish parent­age, Judaism is quite mar­gin­al at best, here. As for the mat­ters of hon­or,” scat­tered through­out the text, watch­ing for them in what­ev­er con­text they occur should add to the plea­sure of read­ing this provoca­tive novel.

Samuel I. Bell­man is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Cal­i­for­nia State Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty of Pomona. He has been writ­ing on Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers since 1959.

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