July 19, 2006

Between The Covers

With disarming candor, Gerald F. Sweeney notes that Last Proud Gallop, which he started 50 years ago, took two years to write, two years to sell and two years for the publisher to decide not to print it. In some ways, that's a loss.

This is an uneven but appealing novel, with some fine phrasing and thought-provoking observations on the Jazz Age, particularly about how class affects democracy and why The Lost Generation squandered its idealism with such mad abandon. Sweeney, a Long Island native, who lived in East Hampton for a while and now resides in Easton, Maryland, grew up not too far from F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gold Coast.

If his witty, slightly removed-from-the-high-life narrator Michael (Mike) Wentworth Jamison calls to mind Fitzgerald's ambivalent observer Nick Carraway, it's no accident: Sweeney says he wrote Last Proud Gallop as an "homage" to The Great Gatsby. But it's also obvious that he chose to explore Nick's world more than Gatsby's, old money rather than the strivings of a parvenu, and the promise — and failure — of enlightened political reform attempted by a few golden boys who wanted to make a difference in the direction of the country. Their plans die because their leader succumbs to an obsession with an extraordinarily beautiful, pleasure-seeking dancer who has reinvented herself as an exciting and irresistible courtesan.

The sun always seemed to rise on Tad Hancock, a handsome and well-liked war hero, childhood friend of Teddy Roosevelt and scion of one of America's oldest and wealthiest families, whose aviation exploits are as admired as his abilities in polo. The head of a Princeton-educated inner circle of young potential movers and shakers —the best and the brightest on the cusp of a changing America — Tad includes Mike in his reform Plan. What Tad does not foresee is the erotic counterforce on him of Pamela Josplin, who will be for him what Daisy Buchanan was for Jay Gatsby — the unattainable "green light" across the bay.

Fitzgerald's tale of the clash between old money and new, and the insidious corruption of morality and values by war and materialism, becomes in Sweeney's hands a contest between head and heart, or, more properly, between social tradition among America's aristocrats and good old-fashioned lust in the loins.

The Last Gallop succeeds in capturing the wild life of LI's palatial rich, but it falls victim to inconsistency and inaction. It's not clear what Mike's role is. As, he too, casually puts it in an introduction penned in 1969: "I know there has to be a reason why I'm going to tell a story about something that happened fifty years ago," then concedes that we've probably heard tales like this before. Does he want to revisit the past out of "nostalgia" and "affection"? Because "something has been left out of the chronicles" about this era, something that might help explain the sixties? Or is it just the "simple truth" that he loved both Tad and Pamela, a consideration that the narrative does not sufficiently explore.

By allowing himself to become a voyeur-reporter so that the reader can learn what went on between the lovers, Mike also diminishes his role. Tad may be on to something when he speculates about why he persists in liking Mike — maybe it's for his "nuisance value." No Nick Carraway, he.

Sweeney is inventive with verbs and smart dialogue, but overall the prose does not adequately serve a significant theme or believable characters. That the country will never be young again as it was in the 20s is no news. Still, Last Proud Gallop contains some memorable scenes and exhibits Sweeney's creative way with words. Looking back at the late 19th century, when the North Shore mystique took root, he writes of when the sons of clipper ship owners "began beating into the fishing villages along Long Island Sound. Their once salted blood, thinned by the immense port comforts of Manhattan, thickened again each summer," and then there was war and then, in its wake, the great party was on.

Last Proud Gallop by Gerald F.

Sweeney, Mayfair Publications at mayfairpub@aol.com, 248 pp., $15.95.

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