My wife and I had gone to bed for the evening, and as is my occasional wont, I picked up a new book to begin reading. The book was BREACH OF TRUST by D.W. Buffa. I read a page, set the book down, and turned off the light. My wife asked me if I was going to read it. No, I replied, not now. I told her that I could tell just by reading the first page that if I continued, I'd be up all night reading and thinking, and that this book deserved better than that.
Reading all night is not a bad thing. I do it often enough. But you can't do it with Buffa's work. Well, like so many things, you can, but you shouldn't. You'll miss something. Even if you read Buffa when you are wide awake and fully alert, you have to read him carefully. Every word, every nuance, matters. Buffa writes the type of work that, no matter how carefully read, demands and deserves an immediate second reading in order to fully appreciate what has just been experienced. There is no better --- no finer --- example of this proposition than BREACH OF TRUST, Buffa's latest novel featuring criminal defense attorney Joseph Antonelli.
Buffa may well be our greatest writer of contemporary fiction (there is one other who is his equal, a man who labors in the same genre and who is as good as Buffa for entirely different reasons --- but this is Buffa's review). I don't keep this to myself; when I occasionally take my ungrateful and unappreciative six-year old daughter to a neighborhood playground and see a child's mother paging through a new book by, well, let's say by a better-known writer of courtroom dramas, I have been inclined to walk up and without further introduction politely suggest that her time might be better served by reading one of Buffa's works. Responses vary from a polite nod and a written reminder to a hurried roundup of the offspring to head home and begin preparing supper. I shouldn't do it, but I can't help it. And here is one reason. During the first half or so of the 20th century, there were a number of mass circulation magazines that published short stories by the masters (Hemingway, Fitzgerald). Some of these magazines still exist, a shadow of their former glory, coasting on their prior reputations.
There is a chapter in BREACH OF TRUST that could stand alone as a short story published in any one of those magazines during their heyday, and that would not be eclipsed by the company it would be keeping but would cast a long, deep shadow all its own. I won't tell you which chapter; I'm going to make you read BREACH OF TRUST to do that. It deals though with Antonelli's reminiscence of a party that took place during one of his law school summers, when he met a woman with whom he fell in love, or something close to it. It is one of the finest pieces of short fiction I have read in thirty years. Yet it is not as good as the whole of BREACH OF TRUST.
So what is the whole of BREACH OF TRUST? It, of course, concerns Antonelli, the best-known criminal defense attorney in the country, grudgingly and with misgiving attending his law school class reunion at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel. To say that his class makes up what is referred to as "the best and brightest" is true, in a sense, for it includes (besides Antonelli) a sitting Supreme Court Justice and the current Vice President of the United States. It is the latter, one Thomas Stern Browning, who is at once the reason for Antonelli's presence and part of his hesitation in attending. Antonelli and Browning, once close friends, have not spoken in years. The reason for the chronological gulf of silence between them is ostensibly the death of one Anna Malreaux, who fell to her death from a window during a law school party at the Plaza Hotel decades before.
Antonelli, attending the reunion at the gentle but incessant request of Browning, learns why his old and former friend has requested his presence. An investigation into Malreaux's death, which was ruled an accident at the time of its occurrence, is about to be reopened, and a classmate of theirs, one James Haviland, will be charged with Malreaux's murder. Browning senses that he will be called as a witness and that the entire episode is being played out at the behest of the current presidential administration, with whom Browning is at odds, in order to quash Browning's aspirations toward the possibility of the presidency. Browning implores Antonelli to become involved in the matter, to bring his considerable talents not only to defend an innocent man but also to further Browning's political goals.
What I just wrote is but one element of the sum of the parts that make up BREACH OF TRUST. It is also a story of sublimated angst, of the sad and wonderful dance that men and women do with each other in their youth that they will never forget for their rest of their lives. It is the story of what can occur when a man who is smarter than almost everyone else meets another who is perhaps just a bit more clever. Anyone who has ever loved and lost will read BREACH OF TRUST and feel old wounds open for a moment, feel a longing, and think for just a moment about making an ill-advised telephone call to renew a severed connection to someone they had once loved and almost, but have never, forgotten.
Buffa, with BREACH OF TRUST, reaches for the moon and the stars and grasps them firmly, claiming them for his own. This is a spellbinding, haunting work that will never let you go; one of the few books that, fifty years from now, will really matter. I cannot make a higher recommendation than that.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010