Hardy Plumbing
April 19, 2006

Between The Covers

The challenge for a satirical novelist is to realize what a literary critic once referred to as satire's three Rs — risibility, recognition and reform — an implied call to be funny, to have readers know what you're angry about, and to advocate without being overtly didactic.

The problem is that knocking Hamptons McMansions now almost constitutes a genre. With Lapham Rising, his first novel, the award-winning print and television essayist Roger Rosenblatt enters the lists. Rosenblatt, who lives in Quogue and would seem to have a personal prompt in writing his tale, fastens his sights on Lapham, who is building a 36,000 square-foot house directly across a creek from Rosenblatt's first-person narrator, Harry March. Harry lives on a little island he calls "Noman" [as in, no man is an . . . ] in stripped-down misanthropy, with a statue of his ex-wife and his dog, Hector, a sarcastic, born-again evangelical, with whom he converses.

Rosenblatt, whose impressive credentials include stints on PRB's Newshour and tributes from many well known celebrity authors, has crafted in Lapham Rising a sly, if slight, satire that will appeal mainly to those in the literary know, those who remember The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, for example.

Though the narrative is also chock full of references and allusions to Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, some lit crit folks may take issue with Harry's understanding of "eighteenth-century principles" and posturing as a "Romantic," especially as he adopts the role of an anti-hero out to right wrongs. The wrongs are centered in Lapham whose "rising," over-the-top architectural erection on eight acres of once-pristine land offends the view and sensibilities of his reclusive, curmudgeonly neighbor. The action covers a day, a critical day, in Harry's life as he gets ready to show Lapham, pretentious East End getters and spenders, and the world what he thinks of them. There is no doubt that Harry, who hasn't written a word in eight years, and who may be half mad in his machinations to stop Lapham, sees himself as a force to be reckoned with, for his sharp mind, aesthetic values and determination.

The subject of overbuilding on The East End is timely and important, and Rosenblatt gets off some good lines — Harry's "recent refusal to read from his work at the White House would have been more impressive had he been asked" — but Lapham Rising too often strains to be clever and significant, with the result that preciousness and not a little patronizing (of the Mexican workers building The House of Lapham, with whom Harry establishes a bond) get in the way of sustained satire. Harry's world seems divided into those who have homes to live in (himself) and those who acquire them "for the approval of others," a category that seems to include just about everyone else in the book. Only so-called real people, like Dave the contractor, or a West Indian ticket agent at U.S. Air, escape Harry's censure. Dave, incidentally, apparently doesn't wonder how Harry pays for his "humble home and hearth" in the pricey Hamptons or consider that Harry's West Highland terrier, Hector, probably didn't come from ARF.

Although many reviewers have praised Lapham Rising, questionable puns and all (Lapham has a chandelier left over from Kristallnacht), Rosenblatt may be more persuasive in the personal essay form. Here, metaphors and similies tend to appear as awkward, writerly contrivances rather than as images resonant of character or theme. Of a former collection of floor-to-ceiling books in his house, Harry says they were like "lewd and happy whores leaning on the windowsills of a Paris cathouse, their rosy tits spilling out of their housecoats, and calling to me: Come on up." Or, as Harry gets ready to fire his jerry-rigged machine at Lapham's palace, he notes that the sun "no longer equivocates and has dulled to the color of grade-school glue," and that "the day takes on the bleak appeal of a mule, part solemn, part mule." If such phrases are meant to illustrate Harry's "delightful sense of humor" or exemplify the talent that causes other characters to pester him to read their novels, the evidence doesn't convince. Lapham Rising seems less about Lapham and more about Harry, who comes belatedly to appreciate the old saw that the pen is mightier than the sword, or catapult. May the sharper, wittier, and more discerning Rosenblatt return.

Lapham Rising A Novel by Roger Rosenblatt, Ecco, 243 pp., $23.95.

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