May 2008

David Varno


A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living by Michael Dahlie

In the late 1930s, Hollywood-transplanted author Nathanael West created a sad, simple and hopeless character named Homer Simpson. The origins of his misery and ineffectualness were gradually alluded to in West’s classic The Day of the Locust, and dramatized in the way Homer was manipulated and then dumbstruck by the charms of the deadbeat alcoholic woman forced out of her room at the hotel in which he’d worked. (The cartoon character generated 50 years later and named with a Hollywood in-joke bears little resemblance to West’s, outside of his stupidity. Groening’s Homer is unafraid to state his opinions, protect his interests, and pursue his desires.)

The protagonist of Michael Dahile’s debut novel, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, is not stupid at all -- he is educated, insightful, sensitive, and socially acceptable -- but he does a great many boneheaded things over the course of this wry (and also very touching) book, and he reacts to nominal social conflicts with such passivity that they become real problems. Though the empathy Dahlie finds for this character’s resulting tear-stained misery is nearly incomparable, one searches for a reference point to this picture of ruin, and the original Homer Simpson comes to mind.

Dahlie introduces us to Arthur Camden, a fifty-something Upper East Sider, soon after Arthur’s wife has left him for another man. He is among friends, or at least those whom he would call friends, at a lunch meeting of the Hanover Street Fly Casters, held at an old-world Financial District restaurant called Sprague’s. Arthur has belonged to the fly fishing club since his father passed his membership onto him, and his great-grandfather had a hand in building the club’s lodge. The exclusive privilege to visit their legendary fishing grounds in the Catskills is understood to be sacred. The ten other members of the club are all wealthy businessmen and professionals, descended from the titans of lower Manhattan trading. Arthur breaks down into tears before these men, unable to contain his grief or manageably express his gratitude for their friendship. This brief, provocative first chapter further establishes Arthur’s fragile state with the fact he has also recently let the family business go to ruin, due to an incompetence that left “Arthur not only in financial jeopardy but disgraced among his extended family.”

As Arthur fumbles through a series of comical social scenes of the Northeast’s upper crust, unsure how to behave on blind dates or in confrontation with old friends and family, he carries his failure with him like a ball and chain, but he doesn’t seem able to work out the reasons for his punishment, resigning instead to a passive fatalism. But the reader wants to know how Arthur got to this place, and, because he is so good-natured, we are moved to root for him. Before he accidentally burns down the Fly Casters’ lodge, we are pleading with him from our seats, not to bring a woman to the camp (a serious infraction to the club’s bylaws and punishable by certain blackballed expulsion). After he lies to the French police for a friend, who subsequently berates him, we wish we could shake him into standing up for himself. Instead he submits, and agonizes over his indecision.

Rather than examine why one might be prone to second-guessing one’s self, the author keeps enough distance to show how this character is actually perceived as a result of his actions. We read to better understand Arthur, and are fortunate that Mr. Dahlie is such a compassionate writer, showing us just how his protagonist feels and why. The unbelievably bad luck he has is plausible because we know Arthur will blunder. He has a child’s impulsiveness as well as insecurity, which Dahlie gradually traces back to the way he behaved and felt as a boy. Arthur was tremendously afraid of disappointing his father, who loved and supported his son unconditionally nonetheless. But as a result of this insulation, he never really learned how to grow up. In moments of stress or pain, he retreats to a comfortable place and throughout the book is reduced to tears.

The Homer Simpson of The Day of the Locust is consumed by an anguish that is permanent and irreversible. He sits in his deck chair each day and weeps to no end, for as West writes, “Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears.” Arthur does have hope. He is loved by his sons, supported by a remaining friend from the Fly Casters, and even appreciated by a new woman, and Dahlie leaves us with him on a good note, willing to take his son’s sports-metaphor advice and perhaps “show a little stick.”

A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living by Michael Dahlie
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393066177
256 Pages