Barnaby Griswold is a fool, always has been and always will be. He
knows better than to attempt to be anything else, despite the
ghostly presence of his serious, dead father lurking on the
sidelines of his life. You could say that he has elevated
foolishness to a hilarious and profitable art; Barnaby has turned
his talent for schmoozing and following hunches into a fortune by
exploiting the vagaries of the stock market with and for his fickle
New York friends.
Unfortunately for Barnaby, the SEC frowned on his participation in
a deal originating in Oklahoma four years previously. When the book
opens, he is smack in the middle of the tennis match that could
redeem himself in his own eyes, despite the loss of nearly all his
money, his wife, and soon, his summer residence on Winott Point.
Between sets, we learn a few of the details of his fall from grace.
During sets, we aren't surprised to learn that he cheats. "He had
decided to cheat before he was born."
The sections of the novel reflect the stages Barnaby passes
through, as he navigates what becomes his rise from disgrace:
Athlete, Victor, Pilgrim, Lover, and Fool. Events ultimately
conspire to give him a choice between a respectable life with a
real job in Oklahoma, near his hoped-for love, and a second chance
as a rich deal-hustler in New York. The final question is, which
path is more foolish?
Why are we not repelled by this privileged "fluffmeister," as his
father called him? Perhaps because, like any fool worth the name,
he is so entertaining. These characters are vain, confused,
self-absorbed and unpredictable --- in short, human --- and the
author's appreciation for their vulnerability as well as their
foibles pervades his wonderful prose. When Barnaby was 11, his
father attempted to teach him to appreciate the sea life in the
tide pools near their summer home. "His father learned about
anemones, while Barnaby stood and wondered why kids that summer
thought he himself looked like an anteater." Mr. Dillen gets in his
characters' heads, bringing them alive with quirky detail and an
unapologetic, naked feeling.
Then there are the character's names. Peter Potter, the young car
salesman from Oklahoma who led Barnaby into the scandal that
eventually ruined them both, soon becomes Peterpotter, memorably
described as follows: "He had to acknowledge that the young one
gave off sulfurous vapors of wreckage and recrimination, but that
was only cause to remember happily that most friendships for
Barnaby were brief." Barnaby's ex-wife's name is Win, and his
mother-in-law Ada's nurse is Happiness, a televangelist-watching
fount of homespun Montana wisdom.
No review of this book would be complete without at least
mentioning Barnaby's affinity with tigers. He is known to have
long, drunken conversations with the ones in the wallpaper at La
Cote, his favorite dealmaking restaurant. The few pages that
describe Barnaby's childhood visit to the zoo with his father
fairly glisten with his little boy reverent adoration; he even put
on lace up shoes rather than sneakers as a sign of respect, and
when the beasts fail to recognize him --- as an ally, as a soul
mate --- our hearts break along with his.
In short, this novel is a playful and tender romp through six
months in the life of a very lovable FOOL.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 22, 2011