By Jonathan Dee
Random House ($25.00, 258 pp.)
“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” So goes the old vaudeville line attributed to everyone from Mae West to Gertrude Stein. Makes sense, I suppose, but Jonathan Dee in his new novel “The Privileges” paints a picture of the rich that makes us wonder. In a well-wrought portrait of the evolution of a young couple from their typical moneyed wedding in the Pittsburgh Athletic Club to their Upper West Side penthouse, limos, and private planes, Dee lays out the good life without opinion or taking sides.
Adam and Cynthia Morey are so sure of their destiny that they marry at the young age of twenty-two. It is a raucous, expensive event that winds down with “twenty or thirty people in and around the ballroom, drunk, tired, euphoric, young, beautiful, sweaty, dressed up and on someone’s nickel, and determined – as who wouldn’t be – to remain all those things forever.”
Conceived on their wedding night, a daughter April appears and is followed quickly by a son Jonas. The young family makes do in a small two bedroom on the Upper East Side while hardworking Adam makes his way up the ladder at a small private equity boutique. The owner, wealthy, often-married Barry Sanford, takes him under wing. Adam has a vision of what he wants for his family and is determined to get it, so the kids attend the right grade school, prepping for Dalton, and Cynthia devotes herself to the mom stuff at school and running the home. Then Sanford invites them to his Connecticut “country home.”
Sitting with Sanford on his screened porch drinking Bloody Marys while Cynthia and the kids tour the palatial house, Adam has an epiphany of sorts. “Sanford’s house…was so gigantic and out of place it looked like a theme park. It sprawled across an expensively produced clearing as if it had been dropped from the air…the sheer ballsiness of it, the arrogance required to raze whatever must have been here before in order to erect this monstrosity precisely where it didn’t belong, was kind of impressive. He knew Sanford had a lot of money, but sometimes even someone in Adam’s job had to be reminded what the phrase ‘a lot of money’ really meant.” There is rich…and then there is rich.
Cynthia grows bored and unhappy. “If you got Cynthia drunk enough…she would cop to wanting to do some good in the world, or at least to feel like her presence in the world was value-added. [But] without some framework, some resources, even your secret aspirations just curdled into sentimental bullshit.” Adam lives to make his wife and family happy, to be successful and provide resources for their happiness. But he needs more. So he finds a way to build a small clandestine network of traders who will help parlay his insider knowledge into a rapidly growing offshore bank account. That’s when he learns what “a lot of money” is.
As children of privilege, April and Jonas soon develop their own ways: April takes the wild party path and Jonas retreats into his room, his guitar, and old school music. The story is not new, but Dee gives it today’s verisimilitude like Salinger once gave to Holden Caulfield.
Over the winter holidays, April does parties. She “went to one at a townhouse in the East Fifties, thrown by some girl they didn’t even know – she’d been at Spence and was now home from St. Paul’s – but dotted with enough Dalton kids to make her presence there plausible. The townhouse itself was phenomenal, a real old money museum, and its trashing had a terrible inevitability. It was like the reign of Pol Pot, when legions of ten-year-olds were handed carbines and put in charge of national security.”
Jonas does music with his band. They are not very good, but “girls did sometimes come to their rehearsals…it proved once and for all the tremendous magical properties of rock and roll…One of the most depressing manifestations of [the band’s] lameness was how much time they spent naming themselves.” It is only by asserting his leadership role that Jonas kills their preemptively ironical suggested name “The Privileges.”
Dee builds the family situation with a brisk pace and smart writing. Adam is making plenty of money at Sanford’s firm and piling on with illegal trading on the side. Cynthia is spending it by “doing good” on charity boards across the city. The kids are spending it on all those things rich kids spend it on. In today’s vindictive world where everyone clamors for the punishment of every unpopular act from smoking to underwear bombs, we would expect the Morey family to get their legs knocked out from under them, but Dee doesn’t take the expected path.
Adam justifies his insider trading to himself by measuring its success and thinking no one gets hurt. “When he did consider the life his family was living now, a life in which literally anything was possible, every desire was in reach… The only reasonable conclusion, he felt, was that it was the noblest thing he had ever done in his life.” Wisely, he knows when it is time to unwind his network, leave Sanford, and start his own firm. He rolls all his fortune into a foundation that gives Cynthia enough resources to do all “the good” she has the time and energy to do.
The only hiccough in the Morey’s privileged world comes with April’s clubbing. One night she finds herself on a drug and alcohol fueled endless party where she is picked up by two very sketchy looking guys, older guys. “Their gaze reminded you where you were,” Dee writes, “which was basically at the exact center of the fucking universe, young, hot women of privilege at the very peak of everything that was desirable, the very apex of all in life that was worth coveting.” The night ends with a near death car accident, but money buys off lawsuits and the media, and she gets her “time out” as Adam drags her to Shanghai on his plane for a ten day business trip.
Jonas is perhaps the most sensitive one in the family. As a student in Art History at the University of Chicago, he falls under the sway of a professor who introduces him to outsider art. Partly to impress this professor and partly to see pure art being made, he tracks down the reclusive Joseph Novak whose drawings intrigue him. To his shock, the artist locks him in his dirty apartment, threatens his life, and then proceeds to fill an entire wall with sharpie drawn pictures. “There was no look of rapture or emotion on Novak’s face as he drew…As for what he was drawing, it was just another reconfiguration of the same shit he always drew; it was obsessive and incomprehensible and conveyed nothing.” Jonas sees that his expectations were misplaced; Novak is only what he is and can’t help but be.
In “The Privileges” the Moreys accumulate a lot of money and spend much of it for good. They are not punished for their wealth nor do they use it to punish others. They are just rich – and for them, rich is better. We can envy them or abhor them…but there they are.
Dee brings us as close to them as we are ever liable to get, and like Jonas and his outsider artist, he asks us only to recognize that the lives of the Moreys really convey nothing more than what they are.