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.